Hugo Chávez: poor boy from the plains who became leftwing figurehead
Venezuelan leader leaves legacy of literacy and healthcare for poor alongside crumbling infrastructure and dependence on oil
- guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 5 March 2013 17.26 EST
No one imagined it would end like this. A ravaged body, a hospital bed, a shroud of silence, invisible. Hugo Chávez‘s life blazed drama, a command performance, and friend and foe alike always envisaged an operatic finale.
He would rule for decades, transform Venezuela and Latin America, and bid supporters farewell from the palace balcony, an old man, his work complete. Or, a parallel fantasy: he would tumble from power, disgraced and defeated by the wreckage of revolution, ending his days a hounded pariah.
Instead, the 58-year-old leader, whose death was reported on Tuesday by his vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, succumbed to cancer at a hospital in Caracas, departing this world behind drapes of official secrecy. The boy from the plains of Barinas who loved to draw and sing and grew up to be an army officer, a coup plotter, a president and world figure, leaves an ambiguous legacy of triumph, ruin and uncertainty.
It was a surreal, slow-motion death. He announced his cancer in June 2011 to a stunned nation. The comandante, sick? He was indestructible: possessor, as Gabriel Garcìa Márquez once noted, of a body of reinforced concrete. Chávez drank more than 30 cups of black coffee a day, worked till 3am, talked on his weekly TV show without script (or interruption) for eights hours straight.
“We will beat this,” he told Venezuela, enlisting the country in his fight for survival, and, until late last year when he disappeared from view for treatment in Cuba and officials turned grave, the government insisted for a year and a half that, no matter how bloated and haggard he looked, he was recovering.
During 2012 Chávez would break spells of seclusion by appearing on TV clutching that day’s newspaper, like a hostage’s proof of life video. Many Venezuelans were convinced the cancer was a ruse, that he was faking it to wrongfoot opponents.
But he was dying. The type of cancer and its prognosis were official secrets, kept in the same vault as Fidel Castro’s medical records.
Death will return Chávez to the spotlight. His funeral promises to be a vast, tumultuous affair of weeping throngs and foreign leaders’ cavalcades. The millions of mostly poor Venezuelans who considered Chávez a champion since he was first elected in 1998 will be bereft.
“Uh, ah, Chávez no se va,” went the chant. Uh, ah, Chávez won’t go. A gleeful, defiant riposte to opponents who tried in vain to oust him. Now he has gone, but whither his “21st-century socialist revolution”, a unique experiment in power fuelled by charisma and bountiful oil revenues?