The Book: Hugo Chavez’s old friend…Sabaneta…
Hugo Chavez’s old friend…
Hugo Chavez, the former military officer who declared revolution in Venezuela, was born in los llanos, the dry grassy lands of Barinas state in western Venezuela.
Los llanos consists largely of dusty flat plains. It also contains marshes and swamps where crocodiles and anacondas prey upon birds and capybara, a large brown rodent the size of a dog that Chavez has often declared to be delicious in empanadas and “best washed down with papaya juice.”
Far distinct from every president who ever inhabited Miraflores, Chavez is loud, often rude and always hard to handle. His hours long speeches connect with the unacknowledged sentiments of the Venezuelan poor in the slangy, pejorative heavy language that is their own.
It is no surprise that Chavez is popular.
Yet what I saw in the eyes of the people outside Miraflores the night he was reelected surpassed mere popularity.
It was something more absolute.
It was devotion.
In the town of Sabaneta, in the home of Alfredo Aldana, next to his numerous volleyball trophies, there is a framed plaque commemorating the leaders of the failed 1992 coup against Venezuela’s then president, Carlos Andres Perez.
At the front of the group, smiling widely, is Venezuela’s current president, Hugo Chavez Frias.
Aldana hasn’t eaten lunch yet and after I arrive he leads the way into the shady backyard, hands me a mango, and says, “I could talk about Hugo for two months!”
Friends since childhood Aldana still lives in Sabaneta, the hot dusty town where he and Chavez grew up.
“He liked to party,” Aldana says. “When he joined the military he was stationed in a town for two years and got voted president of festivities. He did such a good job that when he left they said he should be president of the country! He also liked to drink and dance. When he saw a beautiful woman he would tell her that she was beautiful. Once, he stole my girlfriend. I wanted to kill him!”
Chavez, also, talks fondly about the adventures he and Aldana had growing up on his weekly TV show Alo Presidente and is godfather to one of his sons. For his part Aldana is intensely proud that his old friend has become president. That someone from a town as small and remote as Sabaneta was elected to the presidency is extraordinary.
When I ask Aldana about this he nods.
“The path to Chavez becoming president began long before he was actually elected,” he says.
In the 1960s and 1970s Venezuela was unique in Latin America for its economic stability. It was one of the world’s leading oil exporters and the money allowed the government to spend far more than the surrounding countries on education, health, and welfare. However after the price of oil dropped, Venezuela was caught off-guard. The Venezuelan government was overspending and the country burdened with massive debt and a nearly eighty percent inflation.
In 1989, Venezuela’s president at the time, Carlos Andres Perez, responded to the crisis by adopting the neoliberal policies recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF): cutting social spending and price controls, deregulating exchange and interest rates, reducing subsidies, and raising the price of gasoline.
It was especially the last recommendation that forever changed the course of Venezuelan history. When people woke to discover the cost of gas had risen and their bus fares had doubled overnight, they rioted.
These riots, known as the Caracazo, were the national shock that Alfredo believes made Venezuelans realize that they needed a leader like Chavez.
“It was twenty days after his election and Carlos Andres Perez let the army loose on the streets. We truly realized how horrible our governments were in 1989.”
As the Caracazo spread, Carlos Andres Perez declared martial law. Set loose on the streets and tasked with restoring order, the army killed approximately 3,000 people, mostly from the impoverished barrios of Caracas.
Three years later, the anger Venezuelans felt over the government repression was answered on February 4, 1992 when Chavez led a military coup against Perez. Planned by a small number of young army officers calling themselves the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario-200, the coup was not just intended to remove Perez. The leaders wanted to reshape Venezuelans politics and society to match Bolivarian values: there was an aspiration that Venezuela would lead a shift towards Latin American independence from foreign powers and greater regional integration.
The coup was unsuccessful.
After surrendering Chavez was allowed to go on national television and accept responsibility for the deaths of the fourteen soldiers killed during the coup and say that he had failed, “Por ahora.”
These words became instantly famous. In the eyes of Venezuelans it was the first time someone had stood up and accepted responsibility for something. With the horror of the Caracazo fresh in Venezuelan’s minds, Chavez was seen as a hero.
After finishing the mangoes, Aldana takes me across town to meet Flor Fouredo, Chavez’s former primary school teacher. A tiny, charming woman Flor is also proud of her former student. “Hugo is Hugo,” she says. “He was the best. He liked to participate. He was a leader.” She goes into a back room and comes out with one of Chavez’s military calling cards. He had sent it to her from San Francisco de Yare prison where he was held after the coup. On the back he had inscribed:
Greetings Everybody. All my friends. From solitary for now.
The note is dated April 11, 1992. He had been in jail for two months. Carlos Andres Perez was later impeached on corruption charges. A new president, Rafael Caldera, had Chavez released in 1994. He quickly reconvened his supporters and when presidential elections arrived again in 1998 all of Venezuela already knew that he was going to run.
Now he has been reelected and promised to continue his “Bolivarian Revolution” for as long as it takes. He keeps talking about the el processo or the process. It is not exactly clear where Venezuela is with this process. Not even Aldana can guess. “Only Chavez knows,” he says. “This revolution is step by step. We will have to wait for twenty years.”