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Hugo Chavez: The Legacy Of A Polarizing Leader


Hugo Chavez, a charismatic and polarizing political figure, died yesterday in Caracas. Elected president of Venezuela 14 years ago, Chavez set out to change his country from the ground up, adopting a socialist agenda, empowering the poor, aligning himself with Cuba's Fidel Castro and opposing the policies of the United States. Who was Chavez? How did he rise to power? What is his legacy? If you have questions about Chavez and what he did for Venezuelans, call us at 800-989-8255, or our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining me now is Jon Lee Anderson, who met Chavez many times. He's a writer at The New Yorker magazine, and he joins us now by phone from Dorset, England. You can find a link to his New Yorker obituary for Hugo Chavez on our website. Jon, welcome to the program.

JON LEE ANDERSON: Thanks a lot, Lynn. Good to be here.

NEARY: And, Jon, in your obituary, you called Chavez one of the most flamboyantly provocative leaders on the world scene. And that certainly is his public image. Is that how he came across in private? Was he flamboyant in private as well?

ANDERSON: Not at all. No, he wasn't. In fact, he was extraordinarily different to his public persona. He was generally very quiet and still. He listened a lot. He asked questions. He was quiet. And I've known that since I first met him in 2001, and it gave me a very distinct view of the man ever since. I was aware that there was this flipside to him, and that that public persona was something that he switched on whenever he emerged. But he was also a moody man, which he never usually did not show in public as well.

And he was a man who had - he had a couple of I would say very remarkable attributes. He had that famously - Bill Clinton's famous charisma of the type that makes people smile when he walked in the room. Chavez had that. And he also had a photographic memory. He had almost total recall of things he'd read. He didn't always digest the information well, but he had - he could quote chapter and verse of many, many different kinds of books. He had that kind of mind, very interesting, something he shared with his mentor, Fidel Castro.

NEARY: Tell us about that first time that you met him. I mean you clearly got some very strong impressions just from your first meeting of him.

ANDERSON: I did. The odd thing was I had - it's kind of long story, but I had actually met his psychiatrist the day before. And unbeknownst to me, Chavez knew this. And it turned out that it seemed like the psychiatrist, who sort of broke his oath and let me know that the president was having marital problems, that it seems to have been done on Chavez's behest, because when I visited him at the palace at night, he told me he knew I've been there, and he seemed pleased. And sure enough, at some point in our - we had a three-hour conversation under a big tree in the garden, just me and him. It was very - and at one point, his wife, the first lady, did come out, and it was clear that they had extraordinary tension between them. They divorced not long afterwards. And she became a very ardent critic in public.

So it was curious. He was a man who was nonetheless - he was tactical, and he was a strategic thinker, but he was able to be personable. And what was most interesting was that here was a man who was a head of state and I've interviewed a number, most of them tried to reassure someone like me that they are in fact a very moderate person - far from of it. Chavez used every opportunity in that encounter and the follow-up ones and including a three-day trip I accompanied him around the country. In trying to prove his bona fides with me as a revolutionary - a future revolutionary leader, at the time he was - he had to really define himself ideologically. He was vaguely left of center but he could've been a strong man on the right, something like a Peron at that time. And he - but he want to be, you know, I was a biographer of Che Guevara, and he wanted - he talked a lot about Che And he wanted to convince me that he was really a radical man, and that was what I most remembered.

NEARY: Well, you know, it says if there's one thing you know about Hugo Chavez is that he's - almost always he's described as a passionate proponent of the poor, somebody who wanted to help the poor of Venezuela. Did he? I mean, did he leave the poor of Venezuela better off in the end?

ANDERSON: Well, you formally speaking, I think according to U.N. indexes, formally speaking, yes, I think they're better fed, they've had better access to medicine and education and food, subsidized food, thanks to his revolutionary missions as he called them. He set up missions to sort of - to do poverty alleviation very often with Cuban help and council. It wasn't very - ultimately long-lasting or effective. I think, you know, he did his very best. What he never had was a true management team that could make things stick. And towards the end of his life, he turned to some of the examples of Lula of Brazil who similarly a more pragmatic leftist leader but nonetheless had genuinely brought about change amongst the most extreme poor of Brazil. And it was something that had eluded Chavez but he began to try to tackle it quite late in the day.

I would say that that lack of a team, that lack of maybe of consistency, the desire to be all things at all times including, you know, a champion of the poor, a champion of the rights of oppressed people around the world against, as he saw it, the American empire and so forth meant that there was a lot of moth to the flame sort of activity but meanwhile, Venezuela was separating. And it's a country that is sort of half - it's a pie that's half-baked, Chavez's revolution. You know, and you see it when you go there. The first thing you see when you arrive from the airport are these slums. They were there before Chavez but there they are now too. And now you have a population which is still quite poor, and living in some of the most violent slums in the Western Hemisphere, and he never really tackled that.

And there is a problem of rule of law, of corrupt policemen, of drug trafficking, of violence. And these are really serious social ills that for all the, you know, if you're a poor person living in a shack, OK, and you're children can now go to school, that's great. They can now eat better. You have subsidized food thanks to the government and you've had Cuban doctors who will, you know, treat your wife if she's ill or has a baby. But you're unsafe. So what do you do with that? And that's kind of the dilemma, the unfortunate dilemma that I feel that Chavez's inconsistency or that of his team, you know, left the country in. So you now have a vast number of poor people with huge expectations. They love that man dearly, and, you know, he really did love them. But so much of his revolution was based upon that sort of charisma, that vibrating affection that they felt for one another, and so little on the kind of sound policies that the building of institutions that would last. He wasn't helped by his opposition.

NEARY: Well, how was he viewed from within Venezuela then? You said he was loved by the poor, I guess, still till the end. But do they feel that he failed them? Is there a sense that he failed them and what about the larger society beyond?

ANDERSON: Well, I would say that the poor, by and large, don't feel that he failed them. Although, you know, I was there recently and - and I spent a quite a bit of time in the barrios, in the slums and in very edgy places. And even Chaveztas privately most of them - as they call themselves, Chaveztas, they take his name, you know - told - conceded that he had made mistakes, that he had been too lenient, for instance, on crime and that sort of thing, and that had made life insecure.

But there were - they didn't want to voice that kind of observation - critical observation in public because the country is so polarized and they still felt that with Chavez they were going to be better because he was a man in the presidential palace who had staked their destiny as his - as his patrimony, his political patrimony. And so they knew that they were going to be OK with him. Beyond that, there's this huge gulf in Venezuelan society. I mean, the middle class is essentially atomized. Maybe it began before but, you know, this is a petrol state. It was very, very much a state kind of cooked in the American clay of, you know - the middle class and upper middle class of Venezuela was very American-centric. I always like to say that, you know, if in Cuba, the famous slogan is free fatherland or death, to many Venezuelans at the upper classes it was free fatherland or Miami, and indeed, that's where a lot of the country's money and oil wealth has gone over the years. It was before Chavez and it happened during Chavez too.

You see a great amount of disinvestment. A lot of captains of industry and corporations sat on their hands and allowed the country to fall apart. They didn't help Chavez. They didn't try to co-op him. And they created, I think, the initial gulf that marooned him, in essence, with, perhaps, a mediocre team of ideologues or devotees around him, and then it got worse, you know, it got worse.

And so you have a situation where, although there are plenty of people making money, the gravy train of Venezuela's oil is vast. So there is corruption and there is business. The smarter heads stayed and do deals even with their, you know, related to their regime in order to make a profit. But most of them take their money out of the country. And so you have a situation where there are some wealthy, middle class enclaves surrounded by guards and barbed wire and panic rooms and heliports on roofs and things and then you have the barrios. And there's not a hell of a lot in between. And everything in between is deteriorated, the kind of public space of Venezuela is rather desolate. And there's not a lot of communication. And that is the problem, this polarization at the heart of this society with a, as I say, a kind of wealthy class that was just waiting for Chavez to finally disappear and had been sitting on its hands for ages and looking after themselves and a poor majority who were very dependent on him.

And I don't know how the twain meet at this point. You know, one hopes that there's going to be some sudden burst of efficiency amongst those who are going to leave the country and figure out a way to, you know, to fulfill people's expectations and also to kind of rebuild the country because I'm not sure that it's all that sound at this point.

NEARY: We're talking with Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine about the legacy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Jon, we're going to take a call from Peter in Oakland, California, now. Peter, go ahead.

PETER: Hi. So I know that the oil industry infrastructure really kind of atrophied under Chavez and that they're below their production potential. And from what I read, it looks like you're going to have to solicit more international businesses, which might be hard for them. And I was wondering do you think the government that succeeds him will be more or less receptive to international business?

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Peter. Go ahead.

ANDERSON: You know, hi. Good question. I can't predict. I know Nicolas Maduro, who is the interim president. He's a man of the street. He's a, you know, he's - he knows the constituency that supports the revolution. He is also said to be pragmatist. I don't know that for a fact. We will see, you know? I mean, after Tito came Milosevic. You never know in these political scenarios where there's been a dominant figure for so long. But there's also an oil minister who's, you know, a very effective businessman.

It's true what you say, though, the production's been somewhat degraded and so on, but with the high production prices, you know, a lot of money has come in. However, they just had devalued the currency. There's actually a shortage of foodstuffs, which seems extraordinary. This isn't Bulgaria of 18 - of 1983, after all. It's Venezuela in the Western Hemisphere and an oil state. So clearly, there's been some mismanagement. There's a great deal of confusion about the economy, I think, and it's going to be a while before they rationalize that.

I think they're going to have a difficult time, though, inviting back at least some foreign investors in parts of the economy where they've made great, you know, they've made a great rhetoric over the fact of their nationalization or the, you know, Venezuelanization of those industries. But it could be something they have to do. We will see.

NEARY: All right. Let's see if we can take one more call from Rama(ph) in Massachusetts. Hi, Rama.

RAMA: Hello. Thank you and thank you for taking my call. I just had a question. I can't help but start with a comment. Hugo Chavez was certainly one of my heroes and inspirations in life for his honesty and his willing to take on American imperialism and take on Bush at the U.N. a few years back and for many other things that I perceived about him. But what I'm fearing is and finding out through the years, he is a complicated multilayered human being. I'm just wondering if your guest could talk about - I once saw the movie "The Revolution Won't Be Televised," and it seemed to implicate the United States heavily in getting him out of there in a coup and trying to take him down a few years ago.

And also whether your guest could talk to the fact - and he probably already has. I run into a lot of people from Venezuela when I talk about how much I love Hugo Chavez, they're always kind of surprised and wondering why and how I can. And I guess, the third part of the question or comment is how come Chavez doesn't get more press for what he does for us here in the United States as far as citizen's energy where they've donated, I believe, 200 million gallons of oil so that the...

NEARY: All right. I'm going to stop you right there, Rama, or else we're going to run out of time for the answer. Jon, take what you can with that. We've got about a minute and a half left.


ANDERSON: Right. Going back to front, I would say, you know, I don't think Americans are alone in always looking for heroes. And I think from a distance, it's easier to make them out of figures that are real and do have nuances and blemishes and warts and all, you know? It's something we all do. And we like villains too, and it's something, I think, we've done in our own history. Going back to your mention of the coup attempt in 2002 where he was basically abducted and forced to humiliating - resigned before being, you know, rescued and returned to office in 2002.

It transpired later and, you know, the evidence seems to be fairly solid that the Bush administration, which did not like Chavez very much, basically gave a wink and a nod to the coup. They weren't behind its organization, but they gave a wink and a nod. When this information came out, of course, this angered Chavez tremendously. He was already predisposed against the U.S. policy in the region.

NEARY: And this really changed that. We're about to run out of time. But this really...

ANDERSON: And after that, he really became antagonistic.

NEARY: Yeah. That really was it again. OK. Thank you so much, Jon, for joining us.

ANDERSON: You're welcome.

NEARY: Jon Lee Anderson joined us by phone from Dorset, England. He is a writer for The New Yorker magazine. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.