Hugo Chávez, the man in the flesh, radiated a freakish degree of energy, as if he were a nuclear reactor, and the freakish radiation had the effect of leaving me startled by the news of his death. The reports of his medical treatments over the past few months had not passed me by. And yet, I had met the man, and, though the meeting was brief, it had left me convinced that mortality’s laws, which are said to be universal, must surely have granted Hugo Chávez an exemption. Cancer issued a decree, even so. It is a lesson to me. But the man’s fatal illness does not gainsay my experience and observations.
“What do you think of the Sandinistas?” was my question to him. The opportunity to make this inquiry arose because, early in 2002, Chávez happened to be in New York, where he delivered an address at New York University. The speech got started an hour late, and it wended forward at luxurious length, and, as it proceeded, it seemed to ascend ever higher toward some future fireworks combustion. He invoked an impending world revolution. Venezuela was going to serve as fulcrum. History was about to turn on a hinge. Only, the speech came to an end, even without the world revolution having broken out, and the privileged portions of the audience made their way to a social reception. And there, via the mysterious swirling motion of wine-sipping crowds, I found myself, entirely by chance, face to face with the man himself.
My question about Sandinistas was a good one because, in the matter of Latin American revolutionary projects, the Sandinistas of Nicaragua had served as Chávez’s immediate predecessors. They had come to power in 1979, and they enacted their Sandinista People’s Revolution, and, when everything was done and said, their revolution had proved to be less than a success—at least, in my own judgment. A disaster, actually. But what was his own judgment?
Chávez was a short man, and I am of medium height. He gazed upward at me, and his upward gaze conveyed the same intensity and power which, a few minutes earlier, he had directed downward from his podium to the crowded rows of auditorium seats, except with me as the entire audience this time. His cheeks had the magnificent armored quality that you see in certain people’s pectoral muscles. He glowed. He paused for an instant, perhaps in order to attune his ear to the peculiarities of my Spanish syntax. And then the prow of his military torso appeared to surge forward and upward in my direction, and he formulated his answer sharply and analytically, and onward he plunged.
He admired the Sandinistas, he said. The Sandinistas had done a great thing. They had taken up the grandest traditions of their own country, which meant the nationalist cause of General Augusto César Sandino, a Nicaraguan rebel of the 1920s and 30s, whose name the modern movement had adopted. But the Sandinistas had committed an error. They had embraced Marxism. This had led to their downfall. I expressed puzzlement. He explained that, in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas had ended up in conflict with business. A conflict of this sort was not necessary. Here was the error. The Sandinistas had also succumbed to the lures of corruption, a grave mistake.
His own movement in Venezuela, he went on, had profited from the Sandinista experience, the good and the bad. His movement had taken its name and cause from Simón Bolívar, the greatest of Venezuela’s historic rebels. But Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution, as led by Chávez, was not a Marxist undertaking. A conflict with business was not required. And yet—here he shifted the discussion to his own priority of the moment—Venezuela was caught up in a conflict, even so. It was because of the press, which was plotting against the revolution. The people of Venezuela were going to resist. He thought I should look into this.
A young Venezuelan journalist happened to be standing nearby, and the journalist, on cue, assured me that, in Venezuela, the situation with the press was indeed terrible, and the journalists were conspiring. Chávez himself wanted me to see for myself. Wouldn’t I visit him in Venezuela? He presented me to still another young man at his side, his military aide, a rigid sentinel. The sentinel gave me his card. Such was the conversation. It consisted of one question by me, with follow-ups, which he answered fully and interestingly, and one speech by him, whose truth he wanted me to investigate. His eyes studied my face the entire time, as if nothing else in the room could possibly draw his attention.
I was struck by his commentary on the Sandinistas. The simplicity of his response seemed to me an example of lucid thinking, or so I told myself—lucidity, rather than, as some people might suppose, the simplicity of a bumpkin of the barracks, or, as other people might suppose, the faux-simplicity of a cagey deceiver. I had the impression that Chávez had offered me a miniature display of his ability to sort out the abstract political categories of national tradition, Marxist doctrine, and non-Marxist revolution, together with the concrete matter of political corruption.
The schematic nature of the answer reminded me of the Sandinistas themselves. It was the style of political leaders who are accustomed to think in broad abstractions—leaders whose power descends from their ability to theorize, instead of their ability to solve practical problems or to glad-hand you to death. Chávez’s presentation struck me as crisper than anything I had ever heard from the Sandinistas, though. Sandinista rhetoric was always a muddle, sometimes invoking Marxism, sometimes claiming to be distant from Marxism, as if the true purpose of any given oration or document was to allow you to project onto Sandinismo any doctrine that suited your taste—liberalism, if you happened to be a liberal; social democracy, if such was your affiliation; or something more orthodox in the Moscow vein, if old-school communism happened to be your predilection. But Chávez’s answer about Marxism was clear.
Then the months and years went by, and, in the degree to which I paid attention to his continuing statements and oratory, I began to notice a rhetorical change, which, after a while, had him speaking about Marxism in an altogether admiring and public way: Marxism as an inspiration, instead of an error. He offered a few words in favor of Leon Trotsky. In the history of Marxist revolutions, this was an oddity—a distinctly post-Soviet development, given that no one, during the reign of Soviet Communism, would have dared put in a word for communism’s principal heretic. Trotsky’s gift for coming up with violent and dismissive phrases evidently appealed to him. And he took to emphasizing his fidelity to Fidel Castro—always an element in Chávez’s political identity, but increasingly prominent in later years, until his displays of filial loyalty to Fidel had surpassed anything you could have found among the Sandinistas, back in the days of Sandinista ultra-radicalism. So Chávez, too, like the Sandinistas, turned out to be rhetorically flexible. But I am not convinced that political manipulation or seduction was invariably his goal.
He did have enemies, and the enemies plotted. This part of his message was, in retrospect, indisputable. I should have taken him more seriously. A mere few months after his chat with me, his enemies staged a coup against him, which was backed by the George W. Bush administration and which failed anyway, in illustration of the Bush administration’s talent for botching whatever could be botched and reaping odium at the same time. I could imagine why, after the coup attempt, Marxism might have loomed more attractively in Chávez’s eyes. Marxism was more assertively anti-Yankee, by custom and by implication, than anything you could associate with the name of Simón Bolívar. Marxism allowed him to identify the United States as a more of an enemy—an enemy by definition, instead of merely because of some regrettable Washington policies.
On the other hand, Chávez also took to emphasizing his Christian inspirations, which Fidel, as an orthodox communist, would never have done, and which Bolívar, as a Free Mason, was not fond of doing, either. Christianity was a Sandinista theme, though. During one of his long-winded Sunday homilies on the television show Aló, Presidente, Chávez announced that a vision had come to him, calling for a “new socialism,” in the name of the Lord. “Christ was a communist,” said Chávez—all of which might suggest that manipulation or seduction was, in fact, his goal. Otherwise, how to explain the doctrinal mishmash, pro- and anti-Marxist, Christian and Free-Masonic (by Bolivarian implication), Venezuelan nationalist yet deferential to Cuba, and always hazily millenarian?
Enrique Krauze wrote a book about Chávez a few years ago called El Poder y el Delirio, or The Power and the Delirium, and Krauze puts his finger on it. The genuine influence on Chávez, as Krauze lays it out, derived from Thomas Carlyle. Karl Marx was a dreadful racist and, on racist grounds, despised Simón Bolívar, who was thought to have a touch of non-European blood. But Carlyle admired Bolívar—Carlyle, the celebrator of the heroes of history; Carlyle, the prose-poet, whose name does crop up in the Venezuelan literature. Krauze in his book stops short of claiming that Chávez had ever pored over Carlyle’s writings, but he insists on a Carlylean influence, even so, and this seems to me correct. For what is heroism, in the end? Carlyle would say that heroism is the ability to bend history, in one fashion or another—the power of a political revolutionary such as Cromwell, for instance, but then again, the power of a man of words, who bends the language.
Chávez had every intention of bending history. The power to mold world events was beyond him, though. And so, he demonstrated his heroic qualities by bending the Spanish language. Marxism, anti-Marxism, Christianity, nationalism, and what-have-you gave him endless supplies of tropes and themes, and his task was merely to string it all together in sentences of mounting excitement. Orations were his heroic acts. Other people are the slaves of language, but he was its master. He resembled Fidel and not the Sandinistas in this respect—even if Fidel’s voice was or perhaps still is the voice of a sullen and injured man, nursing his dignity, and Chávez preferred to boom and declaim.
Orators of this sort, the emperors of language, do not exist in the English language, except maybe in certain churches where the seventeenth century is still in vogue. Even Churchill, even Martin Luther King, seem, by comparison, orators of modest restraint. Nor has any English-language writer, Carlyle apart, captured what this sort of rhetorical heroism is like. If you want to see a proper description, you have to turn to García Márquez, the author of The Autumn of the Patriarch, which says it all. García Márquez’s dictator lives to be hundreds of years old, though. Honestly that is what I expected of Hugo Chávez.
The man who stood in front of me commanded the energy of ten men. He is said to have been, like Fidel, an excellent baseball pitcher. During his oration in the auditorium, he waved aloft a bound copy of his proposed new Venezuelan constitution, and he looked capable of hurling it at the audience at 90 miles per hour. His brain meanwhile juggled abstractions. His language was a nuclear leak, gushing upward from a permanent Chernobyl. During the whole of his conversation with me, not one person among the many guests tried to join us or to interject a question, which, at the time, astonished me. What, no interruptions? No signature-collectors, protesters, Chavista fanatics, academic Latin Americanists? Half of New York City speaks Spanish, which meant that language could not have been the impediment. I think the conversation went on uninterrupted because anyone who glanced in Chávez’s direction as he spoke to me would have felt pushed away by the blast of the man’s energy, the way you might feel if you had opened the door to an overheated boiler room.
One day I attended a talk by Henry Kissinger at the Asia Society in New York, where the society’s director, Orville Schell, asked Kissinger to describe his meetings with Mao Zedong. Kissinger responded with ponderous gravity, as if freshly recalling to himself every detail of his encounters, that Mao in the flesh conveyed a sense of enormous power, something unusual. I was impressed by the comment, given that, during the last half century and more, Kissinger has probably met most of the world’s most powerful people. He meant, I believe, that Mao was someone of a different order entirely—not a man like President Nixon or like the leaders of the Soviet Union, mere politicians all, but someone freakishly powerful in his own person. Kissinger seemed never to have gotten over it. And, as he went on, I thought that, yes, here was Hugo Chávez, as well—a man without Mao’s achievements, to be sure, who stood at the helm of a country that cannot compared with China in size and potential (except in its possession of oil reserves), but a man, even so, unlike other men.
In Carlyle’s definition, a hero is someone in touch with the divine. This need not imply anything good. Carlyle himself, a great writer, was a monstrous thinker—an intellectual precursor of fascism. But the precursor of fascism succeeded, in his book on heroes and heroism, in identifying a human or more-than-human type.