In the Time of Hugo Chávez

Deborah Sontag

New York Times Magazine. June 2, 2002

Early one Sunday, when morning mist still shrouded the Avila Mountains encircling Caracas, I arrived at the Venezuelan leader's hacienda-style residence for a live broadcast of his weekly program, ''Hello, President!'' Sixties-era revolutionary ballads wafted from a crackling speaker as I made my way inside, past soldiers standing sentry in red-laced boots and a grandfather clock that no longer keeps time.

Some Venezuelans faithfully tune in to Hugo Chávez Frias's radio and television program; others shun it because their ex-paratrooper president, like his avuncular ally, Fidel Castro, rambles self-indulgently for hours. That day, however, the whole country would be watching to see how Chávez handled the first program since he was toppled by a coup and then quickly restored to power. Would he preach reconciliation or launch into one of his infamous tirades against ''squalid oligarchs'' (the elite), ''devils in vestments'' (the church hierarchy) or ''counterrevolutionaries'' (those who disagree with him)?

It was late April, and two weeks had passed since the three days so bloody and tumultuous that they seemed likely to change Venezuela forever. On the surface, everything was restored. Chávez had disappeared and then reappeared -- resurrected,'' as he put it again and again, before the ''third cock had a chance to crow.'' His proclaimed revolution of the people was back on track; his presidential term was still due to expire in 2007. Yet the veneer of normalcy -- complete with postcoup analyses on talk shows featuring ads for sushi bars -- was disorienting for most Venezuelans. And Chávez himself seemed dazed as he silently waited at his desk for the program to start.

A broad-shouldered man with militarily erect posture, Chávez, 47, was dressed casually in a cranberry sweater vest, as if just two weeks earlier he hadn't been a prisoner, certain that he was about to be assassinated yet so determined to retain his presidential dignity that he gave a thumbs up -- captured on videotape -- to the helicopter pilot who ferried him into captivity. But his mood never quite matched his attire; his grip on power was still far too tenuous for that.

A superb manipulator of icons who is believed to have something of a martyr complex, Chávez asked the TV cameras to pull back to show the two large portraits flanking him. To his right was Jesus Christ, ''my commanding officer.'' To his left was Símon Bolivar, the 19th-century liberator of South America and Chávez's hero. Missing from the scene, however, was Chávez's dogeared copy of the new constitution, written in 1999 to his specifications. As Chávez groped for it, Col. Oswaldo Gutiérrez, a loyal aide, jumped to his feet. Gutiérrez happened to know that I had a pocket-size edition of the charter with me. ''Give me your constitution!'' the colonel demanded, and he ran with it from my purse onto the president's set.

For three transfixing hours, Chávez disgorged a seamless address to the nation, without teleprompter or notes. It was a torrential outpouring that flowed from public announcements about hydroelectric plants to chatty revelations about his captivity -- he had requested a priest in order to make a final confession and a cellphone to ask his wife, Marisabel, to tell the world that Hugo Chávez had not resigned.

Chávez made his point by repetition, accumulation, exaggeration. The presidential patio contained not just trees but mango trees, guava trees, plum trees, pomegranate trees, palms; recent events in Venezuela were unparalleled in history or at least in the last five centuries on any of the five continents or for that matter on Mars. At one point, overcome by emotion, Chávez squeezed shut his eyes and inhaled audibly through his nose; offstage, his vice minister of information clasped her hands, sighing, ''Qué bueno!''

A man who usually talks in exclamations, Chávez strained to come across as modulated, as a democrat and a cheek-turning Christian who had no desire for vengeance. ''Those who don't want Hugo Chávez to be the president of the republic,'' he shrugged, ''fine, go organize yourself.'' The constitution allows for a referendum to be called in 2003, he noted, and he would take his chances at the polls. ''I'm not wed to power in an unhealthy way,'' he said. ''I'm not Yo el Supremo. I'm just Hugo, a regular guy.''

"I the Supreme,'' the classic novel by Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos to which Chávez referred, is a brilliant portrait of a president-for-life, one in a subgenre of dictator literature that flourished in Latin America before multiparty democracies began taking root. Whether Chávez is indeed a latter-day caudillo or simply a charismatic populist with authoritarian tendencies or actually a genuine leftist revolutionary is a matter of fierce debate in Venezuela. But many believe that he is so gifted and yet so flawed a leader that he almost seems to be the fictional creation of a Bastos or a Gabriel García Márquez.

In Venezuela, almost everyone is either passionately for Chávez or against him, a Chavista or an anti-Chavista. The poor who feel embraced by Chávez worship the Venezuelan president as their redeemer: ''Hugo the Messiah!'' His equally zealous foes see him as Hurricane Hugo, with the power to transform Venezuela into a Communist backwater like Cuba or, alternatively, a violent, riven republic like Colombia.

Whether they love him or loathe him, Venezuelans say that Chávez, who took office in early 1999, has awakened Venezuela from its political somnolence, empowered the poor and stirred the elite to re-engage after years of inactivity. He has been like a shock therapist, exposing and exploiting the profound class divisions in Venezuelan society that can never be ignored again.

''There is no going back to the way things were B.C.,'' before Chávez, said Nelson Ortiz, president of the Caracas Stock Exchange and a self-proclaimed ''anti-Chavista light.'' ''In the passions that he arouses, Chávez is one in a million. For many generations to come, people will be talking about him and about this very surreal, probably defining, moment in our history.''

For decades, Venezuela had plodded along as perhaps the dullest and least fantastic country in the region. An oil nation with the largest reserves outside the Middle East, it has boasted a relatively dependable, although flawed, democratic system since 1958. Then just as Latin America began stabilizing, democratizing and catching up to staid Venezuela, along came Chávez with his camouflage pants and his talk of revolution. Finally this spring, the Venezuelan president, a throwback in so many ways, provoked an equally retrograde reaction: a coup. And the events in Venezuela raised unsettling questions in the region as a whole: Could epaulets come back in style? Was democracy securely anchored? Could Latin America slide backward into old, familiar patterns?

Listening to the revolutionary ballads at the president's home, I felt a keen sense of time warp, as I did at a pro-Chávez march in which every other man seemed to be wearing a Che T-shirt. I also felt transported back in time when I arrived in the stuffy Caracas apartment where Pedro Carmona Estanga, 60, was under house arrest, surrounded by relatives and porcelain figurines. The elevator opened into his fourth-floor home in a gated, guarded, Florida-style condo tower where Carmona's wife greeted me, wringing her hands. ''My husband didn't do anything against the law!'' she said.

Carmona, mild-mannered leader of a business association, had stunned Venezuela by defying his nebbishy character to become dictator for a day. At the behest of right-wing generals who hijacked a massive civic uprising against Chávez on April 11, Carmona agreed to become provisional president after the generals announced Chávez's resignation. But soon Marisabel Chávez was getting out the word that her husband had not resigned, and Chávez's supporters were advancing on the presidential palace, where Carmona was busy dissolving the National Assembly and dismissing the Supreme Court. Amid national and regional outcry, forces loyal to Chávez took advantage of the pandemonium to recapture the palace, Chávez was flown back from the island of Orchila and Carmona was arrested. A month later, he would escape from his house and seek political asylum from Colombia.

Yet Carmona said that day that he had been terribly misunderstood, and his words echoed Chávez and generations of Latin leaders who believed themselves to be fulfilling a historical imperative. ''I have no special taste for power,'' Carmona told me, clasping his hands atop a crocheted tablecloth. ''After decades of an impeccable trajectory, I didn't suddenly become a dictator overnight, an apprentice of Pinochet, for goodness' sake. There simply was a vacuum of power, and somebody had to fill it.''

I repeated that remark to Teodoro Petkoff, an influential newspaper editor who was a leftist guerrilla in the 1960's. ''Ah, the famous vacuum of power; what century are we in again?'' Petkoff said, glancing out at a lively modern newsroom. ''Fidel Castro was supposed to be the last Latin American caudillo. And as for ultraright juntas. . . . ''

At an anti-Chávez rally, a young, American-educated dentist expressed the same sentiment more colloquially. ''Revolutions and coup d'etats are so yesterday,'' she said in English. ''It's really embarrassing for Venezuela.''

A mestizo like most Venezuelans, Chávez is dark-skinned and grew up in a provincial family of limited means. Poor Venezuelans -- 80 percent of the country's population of 24 million -- see him as one of them. ''Chávez has changed our self-image,'' Oscar Rodriguez, a 29-year-old hardware-store clerk, told me. ''Now poor Venezuelans look in the mirror and see a future president. That is what makes the elite feel threatened.''

Indeed, many in the elite do feel threatened, not by the awakening of the poor per se but by the vengeful mood in which they have woken up. Some affluent Venezuelans believe that Chávez has polarized a country that never knew the intense class divisions of most others in Latin America. Granted, they acknowledge, the underclass has long been resentful that the wealth of their oil-rich nation has not trickled down to them. But Chávez has nurtured and fetishized that resentment.

''If you are Venezuelan, you are told from the day that you are born that you are wealthy,'' said Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a former trade and industry minister of Venezuela. ''But the daily reality is that you are very poor. So that means someone is stealing what's yours. That sentiment is what Chávez is exploiting.''

Chávez's parents were elementary-school teachers who imbued in him a love of Venezuelan history. After high school, he enrolled in a military academy with the principal aspiration of making the army baseball team. Injuries detoured him into a more conventional soldier's life, but he was not destined to be a conventional soldier. Chávez had discovered that his own ancestors played key roles in 19th- and early-20th-century rebel struggles against landowners. It seemed as if destiny was calling.

So as a young lieutenant, Chávez began conspiring against the status quo. He formed a semiclandestine group within the army called the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement. Its members, not without reason, saw a corrupt ''cupola'' at the top of every institution in Venezuela. In 1992 the movement attempted a coup. The military leadership didn't see it coming, according to Fernándo Ochoa Antich, an ex-general who was then the defense minister. ''We had some information, but we didn't take it seriously,'' he said. ''Until the coup. Then we realized that Chávez had created an ideologized sector that was more loyal to him than to the institution of the military.''

Although Chávez's men did manage to take control of key garrisons in the winter of 1992, they failed to seize the presidential palace during a showdown with loyalist troops. Chávez surrendered, and he was allowed just over a minute on national television to persuade his comrades around the country to lay down their arms. In that time, Chávez, who was unknown, communicated such calm, charisma and authority that he became an overnight star. After several years in prison, he remarkably translated a failed coup into a stunning success at the polls.

As Ochoa's maid served coffee, Ochoa told me that he had glimpsed Chávez's unique charisma when they both taught military history at the same academy. ''He was an unusually good motivator,'' he said. But the former general said that he also detected in Chávez then a softness, a kind of cowardice. ''He didn't put up much of a fight when push came to shove in 1992,'' Ochoa said. ''Just as he didn't when the generals demanded his resignation on April 11.'' Ochoa leaned forward, offering up a rumor that I had heard from others who want to portray Chávez as psychologically unstable. ''Perhaps you've heard that Chávez broke down and cried that night?''

It is hard to imagine that Ochoa would have hailed Chávez for resolute courage if more blood had been spilled either in 1992 or in April. Dozens of Venezuelans lost their lives during those three days in April, not a lot by the standard of world conflicts. But many Venezuelans fear that April was just a prelude to future unrest. And they are haunted by it. They can still hear the screaming after sharpshooters fired into a huge pro-Chávez march, the deathly silence in the hours right after the coup, the smashing of storefronts, the wailing of sirens and the furious banging of pots and pans as the barrios celebrated Chávez's return.

Soon afterward, they say, everything appeared to be falling back into place. In the shantytown known as the Great Power of God, where cardboard houses cling to the hillside above Caracas, the residents returned to their work as roadside mechanics or vendors of life's inessentials. ''I was so relieved when Chávez returned,'' Zenaida Martinez told me, straddling the sewer pipe that transects her makeshift home, ''because I felt sure the dictator Carmona would have thrown us in the street.''

Across the valley, in penthouse apartments with commanding views of the ''Arabian Nights''-style brothel that is a centerpiece of the capital's skyline, the elegant dinner parties recommenced. ''On the Sunday after Chávez returned, people could barely get out of bed, they were so depressed,'' Ortiz, the stock exchange president, said. ''It was like the boogeyman had come back. People were crying in church. But life goes on.''

Still, everyone knew that the passions released in April had only been sublimated; they were lurking barely beneath the surface. A wealthy couple told me a remarkable story of an experience right after the coup, when pro-Chávez supporters overtook the streets to demand his restoration.

The woman, a petite, stylish blonde, was returning from Paris; her husband, a leading industrialist, went to pick her up at the airport. The road home runs past the pro-Chávez barrio of Catia, and it was blocked by the crowds. The couple had to abandon their car and proceed on foot. The woman darkened her fair face with makeup, hid her tresses under a cap and pulled her blouse out over her slacks. Still, the couple did not succeed in blending in, and before long, as they described it calmly and sadly, a mob was descending on them, screaming, ''Murderers!'' and ''Oligarchs!''

The couple darted through the alleyways of the poor neighborhood until a 70-year-old woman stopped the businessman, calling out his name, a very well known name in Venezuela, a rich man's name. It was a tense moment until the woman identified herself; her father, she said, had been his father's barber for decades. ''You'd better come with me,'' she said, ushering the couple into her modest home. ''I am a Chavista,'' she said, but she kept them safe. The pair spent the night there; imagine a couple of Rockefellers seeking overnight refuge in a Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment in the middle of a riot. Poignantly, the couple discovered that the barber's relatives, of whose existence they were barely aware, had scrapbooks documenting the industrialist's family's history.

Early the next morning, the couple made their way by taxi back up into the elegant hillside neighborhood where they live, passing by the sobering aftermath of a night of rage. As they arrived in their quarter, they saw neighbors out jogging in short shorts, shutting out the world with headphones on their ears. The woman, startled, wanted to shout out the window, ''Don't you know we're in a civil war?''

In that very barrio, Catia, Conchita Mata, a retired government worker, gathered friends and relatives in her small, simple house to drink beer, eat arepas and praise the revolution. Recalling the coup, her sister, Miriam, took my hand as tears welled in her eyes: ''The idea that they could try to destroy in 48 hours all the dreams of the people! I fear an international conspiracy. To the world, we're not Venezuela. We're just oil.''

After hearing the new constitution extolled many times, I asked if anyone had a copy. Hands dug into pockets and purses and turned up a dozen copies of what has become the new bible. One older man gave me his as a present, a palm-size edition covered in powder blue vinyl; he was tickled to learn later that it had traveled ''via gringa'' to President Chávez himself.

Mata's guests thought that Chávez was being too conciliatory toward the coup plotters. Carmona should be in prison, they said, not in his condominium. There is rage in the pro-Chávez neighborhoods. ''The people are not subtle,'' Juan O'Connor, Mata's boyfriend, said. ''They want justice.''

On May Day, when hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans poured into the streets blowing whistles for and against Chávez, I ducked into a psychiatrist's office and resisted stretching out on his black leather couch. Dr. Pedro Delgado, an expert on the appeal of Chávez, says that Venezuela is in such a state of traumatized confusion right now that business couldn't be better. ''Anxiety, depression, uncertainty, rage -- I thank Chávez,'' he said, ''although I lament that it is at the expense of the mental health of the nation.''

Delgado considers Venezuela to be a country in the throes of adolescence that made an immature decision to elect Chávez but a decision that was part of its identity-formation process, like trying drugs.

''Chávez was an experiment for a society looking for a way out of the old, corrupt order of things,'' Delgado said. ''He is a great seducer, and he bewitched the electorate. I didn't vote for him because I know what placing a military man in a leadership position implies in Latin America. We have a hard time resisting strongmen who say they will solve all our problems. We want to believe in them passionately, blindly.''

When Chávez was elected president by the biggest margin of victory in the country's electoral history, his ambitions were grandiose. He wanted to remake Venezuela, starting with its very name, which was changed to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. He wanted to refashion Latin America into a more integrated region less dependent on the United States. And he ultimately wanted no less than to reshape the world order so that the balance of power was ''multipolar.''

But Chávez, politically inexperienced, thin-skinned and confrontational by nature, didn't have the diplomatic skills or management ability to fulfill his ambitions. ''He has poor impulse control,'' Delgado said.

Chávez's greatest success has been in consolidating his own power in the face of a flaccid opposition. He easily eviscerated the two political parties that for four decades had traded the reins of power. At the polls, he won overwhelming support for a new constitution that strengthened the executive, weakened the Legislature and judiciary and expanded government control of the economy. The constitution also lengthened his term from five to six years and awarded him the right to succeed himself.

In a creeping militarization of the government, Chávez enlisted the armed forces in a utopian ''Bolivar Plan'' to rebuild the country's infrastructure and named generals to head both the state oil company and its American subsidiary, Citgo. Chávez also used the military to help him open hundreds of schools; alarming conservatives and economists alike, he has staffed some of those schools with Cuban teachers borrowed from Castro in exchange for oil at bargain-basement prices.

But Chávez's policies have yet to produce the promised social revolution. There have been few tangible dividends for his poor supporters as the economy has contracted; unemployment and underemployment have swelled as capital flight has accelerated. Many of his followers, however, are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because his intentions, they say, are good and it is not all his fault: the elite is withdrawing its resources.

In the eyes of the elite, Chávez grew more antagonistic and radical as the rapid transformation of Venezuela eluded him: he proposed land expropriations, he visited Saddam Hussein on OPEC business, he praised the Cuban ''sea of happiness'' as a model for Venezuela and he warned that the Bolivarian revolution was literally armed. Chávez had made an enemy of the leading labor union federation by trying and failing to eliminate it. In so doing, he fostered an unlikely collaboration between union leaders and industrialists who opposed him. In the months before the coup, the country was seriously disrupted by work stoppages and protest marches that brought together hard-hatted construction workers and Prada-wearing housewives.

On April 11, the fateful day, an anti-Chávez demonstration swelled as a result of what was perceived to be Chávez's ham-handed takeover of the state oil company. Most of the president's critics, including the powerful media, wanted to pressure him to resign or to face another referendum.

''What we didn't want was a coup,'' a leading businessman insisted. ''We are a modern nation.'' The man added: ''Believe me, if the key businessmen in this country had backed the coup, it would have succeeded! It wouldn't have been this farce. Do you think we would have entrusted this Carmona -- he's not a businessman, he's an employee of businessmen -- with our future? This Carmona and these generals took advantage of a civic revolt. Good heavens. They blew it for all of us!''

The industrialist was chatting with me at a dinner party on the open-air terrace of a Caracas penthouse. We were sipping wine and nibbling on tequeños, Venezuelan cheese sticks; in the background, the Berlin Philharmonic played on a large-screen TV.

At the party, I did not hear the usual Chávez bashing and mocking that had become sport before April 11. True, there was a moment when a grande dame wrapped in a pashmina shawl remarked to me, ''On a superficial note, have you noticed that Chávez surrounds himself with the ugliest women?'' But most of what I was hearing I hadn't anticipated -- sober-minded self-chastisement on the part of the elite.

''In the early days of our democracy, well-off Venezuelans considered it their work and their hobby to build our nation,'' said Eugenio Mendoza, a wealthy businessman. His wife, Maria Luisa, continued: ''In the last 20 to 30 years, the private leadership of this country fell in love with the ease of accumulating wealth and concentrated on getting richer. We have neglected our society's institutions and let them get corrupt. I know I sound like Chávez, but his arguments about what is wrong with our country are the same as mine. His solutions are back to the Stone Age. He doesn't have management ability, thank God. But his diagnosis is correct.''

Sauntering over, Maria Luisa's brother, Oscar Guruceaga, joined in. ''Chávez did something important for this country,'' said Guruceaga, a rancher who spends a lot of time in Tibet. ''He woke us up. After years and years. We have no choice now but to embrace our responsibility.''

''Pardon me,'' their elegant mother threw in, sniffing, ''but did he have to use such vulgar language?''

Colonel Gutiérrez, deputy chief of the presidential honor guard that retook the palace in the countercoup, took me for a walk near the president's house, passing by soldiers who clicked their heels and saluted.

Gutiérrez unfolded a copy of El Nacional. He was furious because it included a how-to story about investing in Florida. ''They're encouraging people to withdraw their money from Venezuela and invest it in Orlando!'' he fumed. ''The media in this country make me nauseous. Let's get a café con leche.''

Outside a bakery, a middle-aged woman with a long ponytail stopped Gutiérrez. ''My colonel,'' she said. ''How do I get to see the president? I think we are at the most divided point in our nation's history. I wasn't a Chavista before the coup, but when I contemplated a dictatorship of the oligarchy, I remembered why we elected Chávez in the first place.''

Gutiérrez suggested that she write Chávez a detailed letter, and he elbowed me in the ribs. ''You see,'' he told me, ''the coup will end up strengthening my president. It failed because those behind it didn't take four factors into consideration: God, the people, the grass roots of the armed forces and the ineradicable nature of democracy in this country. I'm 45 years old, and I never lived under a dictator until April 11. And I never plan to again.''

On that ''hello, president!'' in late April, Chávez described a tumultuous baseball game in which a pitcher hit two batters with his tosses, the second batter threw his bat at the pitcher and then the players emptied out of the dugouts and duked it out on the field. ''Thus is Venezuela in this moment!'' he said, thrusting a finger into the air and then calling for everyone to return to his position so that the ''national game'' could go on.

But it is hard to imagine how it can. Chávez can soften his rhetoric and shake up his cabinet and preach reconciliation. He can buy some time while Venezuela recovers from the shock of what transpired in April. But his many and diverse opponents are not prepared to back down, and the country is probably too fractured to heal naturally.

When Chávez left Venezuela in mid-May to attend a meeting in Spain, I received an e-mail message reporting that he had taken along 40 suitcases and suggesting wishfully that this chapter of Venezuelan history might end with the leader disappearing into the night with his luggage. It is far more likely, however, that there will be a bitter fight over the future of Chávez. What form that fight takes remains to be seen. Ochoa, the ex-general, told me that he believes more bloodshed is inevitable; the armed forces are divided, there are weapons on both sides and the political opposition to Chávez is leaderless. But he may well be wrong. It may turn out that April taught Venezuela a sobering lesson: that the future does not lie in repeating the mistakes of the past.

Deborah Sontag is a staff writer for the magazine.