In 1999, days before assuming the presidency of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez shared a plane ride with the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Colombian writer later published this account of the president-to-be, whom he called two men, and two futures for Venezuela. Which was the Chavez who went on to rule the country for the next decade and a half?
As President Carlos Andres Perez got off the plane from Davos, Switzerland, he was surprised to see his defense minister Fernando Ochoa Antich waiting on the tarmac.
“What is going on?” he asked, intrigued.
Antich calmed him down, but told him he should go to the presidential residence La Casona instead of the Miraflores government house. Perez was falling asleep when the same minister woke him with a telephone call to say there was a military uprising in Maracay. As he hurried to the presidential palace, the artillery firing began.
It was February 4, 1992. Colonel Hugo Chavez Frias was leading an assault from an improvised post at a history museum. The president knew his only recourse was to drum up popular support, and he went to the Venevision television studios to speak to the country. Twelve hours later, the military coup had failed. Chavez surrendered under the condition that he too be able to address the nation on television. The young colonel, with his paratrooper’s beret and admirable facility with words, took responsibility for the movement, but the speech was a political triumph. Even though he would go on to spend two years in prison, many of his supporters, and not a few of his enemies, think that speech admitting defeat was the first of a campaign that would make him president nine years later.
President Hugo Chavez Frias told me this story on an airplane taking us from Havana to Caracas just 15 days after being elected president of Venezuela by popular vote. We had met three days earlier in Havana during a meeting between the presidents Castro and Pastrana. He was instinctively cordial, with pure Venezuelan grace. We tried to see each other again in Havana, but couldn’t, and so we returned to Caracas together on the plane to talk about his life and of miracles.
As he told me his life, I slowly discovered a personality that didn’t come close to matching the image of a despot we had formed in the media. This was a different Chavez. Which one was real?
The argument against him during the campaign had been about his recent past as a conspirator and coup leader, but Venezuela’s history is full of these. And the coup attempt seemed to be the only time in his life something has gone wrong for Colonel Hugo Chavez Frias. However, he sees it in a positive light, like a God-given setback. It’s his way of understanding his good luck, or intelligence, or intuition, or whatever the magic dust was that was sprinkled on him when he was born in Sabaneta, in the Barinas state, on July 28, 1954, under the sign of power, Leo.
His parents scraped by on elementary school teachers’ salaries, and he had to help them from the time he was nine years old, selling candy and fruit from a cart. Sometimes he rode a mule to visit his maternal grandmother in Los Rastrojos, a neighboring town that seemed like a city to them because it had a little electrical plant, two hours of electricity every night, and a midwife who brought him and his four siblings into the world. His mother wanted him to be a priest, but as an altar boy all he did was ring the church bells with such enthusiasm that everyone knew it was him. Among his mother’s books he found a religious text whose first chapter immediately seduced him: How to Triumph in Life.
As a painter, amazed by Michelangelo and David, he won first prize in a regional contest at 12 years old. As a musician, he was a fixture at birthdays and sing-alongs with his mastery of the cuatro and his good voice. As a baseball player, he played catcher in Venezuela’s top league. Joining the army was not an option. It never even occurred to him until people told him it was the best way to make it to the big leagues. It must have been part of the miracle, but the same day Chavez started military school, a plan was put in place that would let recruits achieve the highest levels of education. He studied political science, history, Marxism, and Leninism. He developed a passion for the study of Simon Bolivar, learning his words by memory. But his first real conflict of conscience in politics came with the death of (Chilean President Salvador) Allende in September, 1973. Chavez didn’t get it. Why, if the Chilean people had elected Allende, would the military depose him? A little later, his company captain assigned him to keep an eye the son of Jose Vicente Rangel, believed to be a communist.
“Look at what life throws at you,” Chavez says to me with an explosive laugh. “Now his dad is my foreign minister.”
It was even more ironic when he graduated and received a saber from President Carlos Andres Perez, the man he would try to depose 20 years later.
“Besides,” I said, “you were about to kill him.”
“I was not,” protested Chavez, “The idea was to put in place an assembly to rewrite the constitution and return to the military base.”
I immediately realized he was a natural storyteller, a product of Venezuela’s creative and jocular popular culture. He had a great sense of timing and an almost supernatural memory that allowed him to recite poems by Neruda and Whitman, or entire pages from Romulo Gallegos.
At a young age he discovered his great-grandfather was a legendary warrior, not murderer as his mother claimed. Chavez was so enthusiastic about it that he decided to write a book to clear his grandfather’s name. He dug through historical archives and military libraries and combed the region, going from town to town getting accounts of his grandfather from survivors.
On one of those days, he unwittingly crossed the border over the Arauca bridge into Colombia, and a Colombian captain who checked his bag found reason to accuse him of spying. He was carrying a camera, a voice recorder, sealed documents, pictures of the area, a military map, and two army-issue pistols. A discussion went on for several hours in an office where the only painting was one of [the pan-Latin American liberator]Bolivar on his horse.
“I was almost ready to give in,” Chavez said to me, “Because the more I explained the less he understood.”
Until he remembered the words that saved him: “Life is really something, my good captain. Just a century ago[before Venezuela and Colombia split]we were one army, and the guy looking at us from that painting was the boss of both of us. How could I be a spy?” The captain, moved, began to speak highly of Gran Colombia, and the two ended up drinking beers from both countries in a cantina in Arauco that night.
The next morning, sharing a headache, the captain gave Chavez back his historian’s tools and bid him farewell with a hug in the middle of the international bridge.
“During that time, the concrete idea came to me that something wasn’t working right in Venezuela,” Chavez said.
They had made him commander of a squadron of 13 men and a communications team dedicated to stamping out the last guerrilla strongholds in the east. One rainy night, an intelligence officer asked for refuge for him, his soldiers, and a group of sickly and emaciated prisoners who were allegedly guerrillas. Around 10 at night, as Chavez was falling asleep, he heard screams from the next room: “The soldiers were beating the prisoners with baseball bats wrapped in towels so they wouldn’t leave a mark.”
Indignant, Chavez demanded the colonel turn the prisoners over or leave, saying he couldn’t let them be tortured under his command.
“The following day they threatened me with a military trial for disobedience, but they just kept me in observation for a while.”
A few days later, he had another experience that surpassed the previous ones. He was buying meat for his troops when a military helicopter landed on the patio of the base with a load of soldiers badly wounded in a guerrilla ambush. Chavez carried in his arms one soldier who had several bullet wounds.
“Don’t let me die, lieutenant,” he said, terrified, but Chavez barely got him to an ambulance before he was dead. Another seven died as well. That night, awake in his hammock, Chavez asked himself: ‘What I am doing here? On one side farmers dressed as soldiers torture farmers who are guerrillas, and on the other side these farmers who are guerrillas kill farmers who are dressed in green?’
On the plane ride taking him back to Caracas he realized he had fallen into his first existential crisis.
The next day he woke convinced his destiny was to start a movement. He did it at 23, with a revealing name: The People’s Bolivarian Army of Venezuela.
“With what end?” I asked him.
He simply said: “With the end of preparing ourselves in case something happened.”
A year later, as an paratrooper officer for the Maracay battalion, he began serious scheming. That’s what was going on on December 17, 1982 when there was an unexpected episode, one Chavez considers decisive in his life. He was already captain of a regiment of paratroopers and an assistant to an intelligence officer. When he was least expecting it, his commander commissioned him to speak in front of 1,200 officers and soldiers.
One afternoon, with everyone gathered on the military base’s soccer field, the master of ceremonies announced him.
“Where’s your speech?” the commander asked him as he walked up to the stage empty handed.
“I don’t have a written speech,” Chavez said to him, and he started to improvise. It was a short speech, inspired by Bolivar and Marti, but with a personal reflection on oppression and injustice in Latin America after 200 years of independence. The officers, his men and those who weren’t in his regiment all listened without expression. The commander, very unhappy, scolded him within earshot of everyone: “Chavez, you come off like a politician.”
“I understand that,” Chavez replied.
Felipe Acosta stood up in front of the commander and said: “You’re wrong, sir. Chavez is not a politician. He’s a modern captain and when you guys heard what he said you pissed your pants.”
So Colonel Manrique addressed the troops and said: “I want you all to know that what Captain Chavez said was authorized by me. I gave him the order to give that speech, and everything he said, although it wasn’t in writing, he told me about yesterday.” He gave a pause, and wrapped it up with a conclusive order: “None of it leaves here.”
At the end of the ceremony, Chavez went on a ten-mile jog with captains Felipe Acosta and Jesus Urdaneta to Saman del Guere; there together they repeated Simon Bolivar’s solemn oath.
“I changed the oath at the end, of course, ” Chavez said to me. Instead of ‘when we have broken the chains that oppress us because of the will of the Spain’s power’, they said: ‘When we have broken the chains that oppress us and the people because of the will of the powerful.’
Since then, all the officers who were incorporated into the secret movement had to take the oath. The last time it happened was during the presidential campaign in front of 100,000 people. For years, they met clandestinely, their numbers swelling with military men from all over the country.
“We had two-day meetings in hidden places, studying the country’s situation, analyzing, contacting groups and friends. We had five meetings in ten years without being discovered… We were nervous because we didn’t want to leave the army,” Chavez said. “We had formed a movement, but we didn’t know why.”
However, when the drama that was going to unfold unfolded, they weren’t ready. It was the popular uprising of February 27, 1989: El Caracazo. Among the most surprised was Chavez himself. Carlos Andres Perez had just assumed the presidency after a sweeping victory and it was inconceivable something so serious would happen within 20 days of his inauguration.
“I was going to graduate school. On the night of the 27th, I went into the fort at Tiuna to ask a friend for some gas to get me home,” Chavez told me minutes before landing in Caracas.
“I saw they were mobilizing the troops and asked a colonel: ‘Where are all these soldiers going?’ They were even sending out troops that weren’t trained for combat yet. They were recruits scared of the rifles they were carrying. The colonel said: ‘To the streets. Those are the orders. This uprising must be stopped at all costs and that’s what we’re doing….’ And I said: ‘But colonel, can you imagine what might happen?’ And he answered: ‘Well Chavez, those are the orders and there’s nothing to be done about it. It’s in God’s hands’.”
When Chavez started his car, he saw a soldier come running, his helmet around falling around his eyes, his rifle dangling and his ammunition scattered about.
“So I stopped and I called to him,” Chavez said, “And he came in, all nervous and sweating– an 18-year-old kid. And I asked: ‘Where are you running to?’ He said his squadron had left him and his lieutenant was up ahead in a truck. I caught up to the truck and asked the driver: ‘Where are you going?’ He answered: ‘I have no idea. No one knows’.”
Chavez took a deep breath and almost choked on the angst of that terrible night.
“You send the troops into the streets, frightened, with rifles and 500 clips of ammunition and they use them all. They swept the streets with bullets, they swept the hillsides and the poor neighborhoods. It was a disaster. And my instinct told me they were sent out to kill. It was the moment we were waiting for to act,” Chavez said.
And so it was done: from that moment on, he began to forge the coup d’etat that would fail three years later.
The airplane touched down in Caracas at three in the morning. I could see now through the window the glow of the lights of that unforgettable city where I had lived during three crucial years of Venezuela’s history, three crucial years of my life. The president bid me farewell with a hug. As he walked away amidst soldiers and supporters, it struck me that I had just traveled and chatted happily with two different men; one to whom luck had given the chance to save his country, and the other, an illusionist who might pass into history as yet another despot.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
13 Mar 2013