Explosions and gunfire rattled through the early morning Caracas silence. “Coup” they said as we stumbled into the living room, and they turned on the television. A tank was knocking down the doors of a palace. Armed figures were flitting from shadow to shade. We watched for what might have been hours as slowly the gunfire became more sporadic. The President went on the television to assure the people that he’d not been killed – after all. “It is said they are holed up in the museum in ’23 de Enero’”, the rumor flowed through the backstreets of the city.
“It is said they have surrendered,” and the city slowly exhaled. Finally, they had him. They said his name was Chavez – young and thin; a full bird Colonel, a paratrooper not yet 40 years of age. “We have failed to meet our objectives, for now.” The thin soldier said; and the words reverberated between the skyscrapers of the great city and out into the countryside. A country, a continent. A hemisphere.
From the “for now” of an angry, defeated soldier to “it still smells of sulfur” as a tyrant defied a superpower – there’s a reason that this 25 year story has enthralled the world. There’s a reason that the communists felt a tingle travel up their leg as that unknown revolutionary first spoke to his country. To the world. Six short years, from being arrested for attempting to kill the sitting president, to swearing his own oath of office upon, as he called it, “this moribund constitution”.
“Expropriate it,” he would thunder away during his seven hour tirades as his enemies trembled. Dancing to Mexican music, hurled insults pregnant with vile innuendo at any who would dare oppose him, man or woman. Opponents who would disappear. Former allies who would quietly flee, having somehow aroused the ire of the unstable despot.
25 years ago – all the people of Venezuela have known since is Hugo Chavez. Chavez in the morning, Chavez at night. Chavez in the soup and on the ricebags and stamped across the ever-scarcer toilet paper. Dressed mostly in red – until the occasional blue became necessary to bury a political rival. Then back to red. The visage of the man fattening out before the ever-watchful eyes of the cameras as his grip upon power solidified; until he swelled with disease that seemed to mirror the bloated, infirm county he refused to release from his wicked grasp. His every absence a source of controversy; his every word a promise and a threat. He seemed to stand across the very top of the continent – calling all the people unto himself as some sort of mestizo messiah of the poor and the destitute and the angry and the jealous. And come they did; from Argentina and Chile and Brazil and Mexico, more powerful countries but without so great a leader. They came out of fear lest he find in them an enemy and seek their downfall. They came for opportunity; because they too had hate in their hearts. They came for handouts; they came to take advantage. All that Hugo Chavez really cared about was that they came – to pay homage to him, that poor boy from that mud house in the Venezuelan Great Plains.
It was a great party indeed, for those who like that sort of thing – until the morning-time; because national hangovers are an awful thing.
I won’t go into much detail on the tremendous damage done. Figures are boring; and so great figures as represent the suicide of Venezuela are hard to hold in your imagination. A trillion dollars missing – a trillion dollars? Ten percent of the country emptied out – that’s three million people. An entire mega-city, gone, dissipated like a vapor into New York and Miami and Madrid; taking with them what they could, what they might, what they were permitted; burning the rest. 300,000 violent deaths; a civil war really. 80,000 businesses gone, “expropriated” and abandoned or simply swept away amid the powerful tides of revolution. The exchange rate went from 5 Bolivares to the dollar – to 4.5 million. Two generations of lives lost marching and resisting and voting and conspiring and fleeing; in a closed loop that has extended – even after the dictator died. Can you carry such things in your consciousness?
I sure can’t. 25 years – the slow, agonizing murder of a country at the hands of one evil man married to a defunct idea. 25 years. 25 years, and the story still goes on.