(AFP)A handshake and two minutes of conversation was all it took to realise that Hugo Chavez — when he spoke wistfully of swaying in a hammock in retirement while gazing at cows grazing on the banks of the Arauca River — was lying.
The president of Venezuela, who died on Tuesday, was a full-tilt, 24/7 politician to the very end. His “Bolivarian Revolution”, inspired by Latin America’s 19th century liberation icon, was the driving force of his existence.
It was a life, and a cause, replete with extremes and contradictions: an idealism ravaged by compromise; the vilification of his enemies, especially the United States; the unwavering certainty that he was indispensable to his country; the solitude of a leader surrounded by fawning acolytes.
“Chavez is 150 percent politician,” a close collaborator said before he died. “No one can accuse him of not giving to his country, body and soul. Even those who hate him acknowledge that, which is one reason, by the way, they hate him so much.”
During 14 years in power, Chavez was always in the public eye. He hardly slept. He never went on holiday. He rarely went abroad.
“Today, I’m only going to speak briefly. Just four hours,” he quipped once in 2009 as he launched into one of his televised marathons, which often extended to twice that long. No teleprompters, no prepared text, no breaks for advertising.
His voice became the omnipresent background music of Venezuela, soothing for some, grating for others. His likeness adorned the walls of the most remote villages. His features are ingrained in the Venezuelan psyche, and won’t wash off easily.
Chavez was more than just the dominant political actor of his era in Venezuela. He was arguably the country’s only political actor. “El Chavismo” permeated everything, veering toward a cult of personality.
El Presidente, who seemed to operate in his own time zone, could keep a roomful of journalists waiting hours before suddenly bursting in with the confidence of those who think they’re worth waiting for. And always, hanging somewhere in the background, a portrait of his spiritual teacher and inspiration, Simon Bolivar.
One could almost see the shivers of fear and veneration running through the government officials on hand. He was imposing, in every way.
Even his most ardent detractors in politics and the media will admit that when Chavez walked into a room, when he locked his eyes on you, the charisma was palpable. Whether one-on-one, in front of a cheering throng, or addressing the nation, he held his audiences captive.
“How goes it, guys. Have they given you something to eat?”, he might say wading into a gaggle of reporters, brandishing a 500-watt smile. That’s when one could almost hear his ministers sigh with relief: “El Jefe” (“the Boss”), as they called him, appears to be in a good mood today.
Chavez frequently roused his ministers in the middle of the night when he had an idea. And he would humiliate them in public if they failed to solve a problem to his satisfaction. He could make them feel like they were part of history unfolding, and then, in the next breath, tell them they were worthless; glorify them one day and give them a public dressing down the next.
“When you work with a leader as exceptional as Chavez, you realise that your project is his project. Period. Individual plans just don’t fit into the picture,” said one member of his government.
In front of a camera, Chavez was — for a journalist — surprising, destabilising. He could suddenly nationalise a bank while visiting a convent, announce a rupture in diplomatic relations while chatting with footballer Diego Maradona, or expropriate a group of houses with the wave of a hand during a walk-around in Caracas.
He once told his wife (at the time) to get ready because, it being Valentine’s Day, he was “going to take care of her just the way he should.”
Right up to the bitter end, Chavez revelled in saying and acting in contradictory ways. He could trash a political opponent as a “pig” and then invite him into national reconciliation; cast Barack Obama into purgatory and then tell the American president, “I want to be your friend”; warn about dark plots against his person before suddenly breaking into joyous peasant song.
Beyond the volcanic, swaggering Latin leader that so many saw in him, Chavez had an uncanny capacity to scheme, coupled with an almost animal instinct to ferret out opportunities and survive setbacks.
What fuelled him was a quasi-mystical communion with millions of Venezuelans who wished he would stay president forever. The adoration he enjoyed from one half of the country was proportional — in size and intensity — to the hatred he inspired from the other half. Chavez had no patience for his detractors, who he contemptuously dismissed as “anti-revolutionaries”, one of the vilest epithets in his vocabulary.
“My life belongs to you!”, he would shout out at rallies so massive and frenzied as to stun those seeing them for the first time.
Consumed by his grand project, and mesmerised by the socialism he absorbed from the written page, Chavez seemed to exist in a bubble. Sometimes he hinted at his isolation. Former minister Carlos Genatios, who moved to the opposition, remembers finding Chavez brooding darkly one day inside his presidential palace. “What’s wrong?”, Genatios asked. “Here, people don’t talk to me, they don’t dare, they don’t tell me anything,” Chavez answered.
So who was El Presidente? Democrat or tyrant? Twenty-first century socialist or brilliant opportunist? Someone obsessed with power or a true believer wed to his mission? Perhaps all of these at once? “They have created a Chavez that has nothing to do with me,” he was heard to say one day.
Occasionally one could catch fleeting glimpses of a violent extrusion from his inner self. It flashed, for example, when he learned that a woman had given birth on the street after being turned away from several hospitals, or that supermarkets had run out of food. That white-hot look could also flit in his eyes when a journalist asked an embarrassing question.
Even in death, Chavez maintains his grip. For many among Venezuela’s 29 million people, his demise still seems unreal, whether they loved or hated him. “The worst possible scenario is that Chavez dies, because we need to defeat him,” said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, coordinator of the opposition bloc MUD, days before the cancer-ridden leader’s death.
For a decade and a half, Chavez’s opponents groped in vain for a way to pierce his aura, to bring him down. It’s as if, in dying, El President’s achieved his death-bed wish of remaining, forever, in power.
Beatriz Lecumberri was a correspondent in Venezuela for AFP from 2008 to 2011. She is the author of a book on Venezuela under Chavez, “The Sentimental Revolution”, published in Spanish in 2011.