The last time I was in Caracas, four years ago, the colourful graffiti with revolutionary slogans followed you from the airport to the city and gigantic posters of Hugo Chávez looked down at you from tall buildings: Chávez hugging children, Chávez surrounded by workers in hard hats, Chávez smiling. Nothing much has changed. Some of the old posters have been replaced with equally huge faces of Hugo Chávez smiling at his people. What has changed is that now there is a sense of dread because of the suspicion that Hugo Chávez is dying. The official version insists that he’s very much in charge and, although he cannot speak because of respiratory problems caused by the latest operation, he writes orders and decrees. However, for a president who has become famous for his ability to speak for hours on television in the public eye, his silence feels very ominous.
For many Venezuelans, including those who support Chávez, this element of uncertainty makes it difficult to plan, even for the near future. The current government does not make things any easier. A couple of days ago, the President of the Assembly (parliament) and Deputy President of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, Diosdado Cabello, gave a press conference where he explained that he and other members of the government had had a five-hour meeting with Chávez and attacked those who questioned the official version that the president is recovering. Yet somehow it wasn’t convincing: nobody saw Chávez arrive in Venezuela; the medical reports are not clear (we are told that he still has breathing problems); and the institution of government is in total disarray. Chávez was supposed to have been sworn into office on 9 January but at the time he was still in Cuba, receiving treatment. The deputy president, Nicolás Maduro, was left in charge but he’s not taken over formally as acting president. So, in fact, Venezuela does not have a president.
Media organisations are frustrated. Laura Weffer, an award-winning journalist, told me that the government is keeping everybody in the dark and when a non-Chavista speculates about the reasons for Chávez’s silence, they are attacked by the governments political Rottweilers.
Chávez’s absence is particularly poignant because February is very important for chavistas. On 27 February 1989 the people of Caracas revolted against the decision by the president Carlos Andrés Pérez to implement a neo-liberal package that included a rise in the price of oil, a red rag to a bull in Venezuelan politics. It provoked an spontaneous uprising that ended in looting and crime. This has become known as the “Caracazo”. Many people believe that, in many ways, the Caracazo signified the beginning of the end of traditional politics in Venezuela. The chavistas, who organised a small commemoration on 27 February, call the Caracazo the “Rebelión Patriótica”, or Patriotic Rebelion, despite the fact that it was neither patriotic nor a rebellion.
On 4 February 1992, a then-unknown army officer, Lieutenant-Coronel Hugo Chávez, announced on live television that a military revolt – or coup attempt – had failed and asked his followers to surrender. Chavez had denounced Perez’s neo-liberal policies and expected to lead a rebellion of young officers.
Under normal circumstances, Chávez would have attended rallies and delivered incendiary speeches. This year, he was nowhere to be seen.
Many chavistas, moreover, seem to be preparing themselves for a revolution après-Chávez. Without acknowledging that the president is probably dying. Pro-Chávez sociologist Maryclein Estellín says that the Bolivarian process has an identity that goes beyond Chávez and even expressed her uneasiness for the excessive personalisation of the revolution.
Everybody is talking about Chávez. Many anti-chavistas talk as if Chávez was dead and accuse him of causing problems that preceded his government. Dollybeth, my host and a staunch anti-chavista, believes that most of the problems are Chávez’s fault: street crime, an increase of motorcycles in the streets of Caracas, consumerism. As far as she is concerned, and like many of Chávez’s opponents, there are no redeeming features in the process.
On our way to her home, something happened. At a busy crossroads, a poor man tried to wash Dollybeth’s windscreen. She shouted at him that she didn’t want him to and refused to give him any money. He was furious. He looked at her through the windscreen and shouted the worse insult Dollybeth could have heard: Chavista! My host was fuming. “He can insult my mother if he wants to, but never, never, call me Chavista”, she said. The irony was not lost in this event. A working class man, somebody who was supposed to have benefited from the revolution could not find a better insult for a middle class woman than to call her “chavista”.
This is a deeply divided society. It is very difficult to find somebody who can even try to assess chavismo with a degree of objectivity. Luis, Dollybeth’s brother, who has never voted for Chávez, believes that the opposition exaggerates in their negative approach towards the Bolivarian Revolution. Yes, it is true that Chávez’s has authoritarian tendencies, he argues, but, at the same time, many poor people have benefited with education and housing. Consumerism and street crime were not invented by Chávez, he says; they were always a feature of Venezuelan society. On the other hand, the class divisions in Venezuela have not been solved. There are very wealthy, heavily protected neighbourhoods where rich people live in European-like houses as well shantytowns where crime is rife and living conditions are poor.
Chávez is everywhere, in posters and shops. I visited a shopping mall in a part of Caracas where Chavistas do not go, where they sell expensive clothes, electrical appliances and posh restaurants. A Rolls Royce was parked in the parking lot. And yet one of the shops sells small well crafted busts of Hugo Chávez, a piece of “art” that a follower of the president could not afford: each cost £85 (US$123).
Whatever the analysis, the criticisms or the expressions of support, there is one thing everybody wants to know: is Hugo Chávez still alive?