by Gabriel García Márquez, Colombian novelist and Nobel Laureate
Lady MJ Santos, the Founder‘s Note: In 1999, shortly before Hugo Chávez Frías became President of Venezuela, Gabriel García Márquez interviewed him aboard an aircraft flying from Havana to Caracas. During their conversation, the Colombian Nobel Literature Prize winner discovered a personality which did not correspond with the despotic image created in the media. Were there two Chávez’? Who was the real one? This is an intimate profile of the President who became a soldier in order to play baseball, a fellow Romantic who recited poems by Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman and who died of cancer at the age of 58.
Mar. 15, 2013 (TSR) – Carlos Andrés Pérez stepped off the plane which brought him from Davos, Switzerland and was surprised to see General Fernando Ochoa Antich, his Defense Minister, on the tarmac. “What’s going on?” he asked, intrigued. The minister calmed him down with such convincing reasons that the President did not go to Miraflores Palace but to his La Casona presidential mansion. He was falling asleep when the same Minister of Defense woke him with a telephone call informing him of a military uprising in Maracay. He had barely arrived at Miraflores when the first artillery charges were heard.
It was February 4, 1992. Colonal Hugo Chávez Frías, with his sacramental cult of historic dates, commanded the assault from an improvised command post in La Planicie Historical Museum. The President understood then that his only recourse lay in popular support and went to the Venevisión television studios to speak to the country. Twelve hours later, the military coup failed. Chávez surrendered, on the condition that he was also permitted to address the people on television. The youthful indigenous colonel, with his parachutist beret and admirable facility with words, assumed responsibility for the movement. But his speech was a political triumph. He completed a two-year prison term before being granted amnesty by President Rafael Caldera. However, many of his supporters and more than a few of his enemies believed that his defeat speech was the first in an electoral campaign which took him to the presidency of the Republic less than nine years later.
President Hugo Chávez Frías told me this story in the Venezuelan Armed Forces aircraft taking us from Havana to Caracas, two weeks ago, less than 15 days after having being sworn into office as the constitutional President of Venezuela by popular election. We had met three days previously in Havana, during his meeting with Presidents Castro and Pastrano (of Colombia), and the first thing that impressed me about him was the power of his body of reinforced concrete. He had the instant cordiality and native grace of a pure Venezuelan. We both attempted to see each other again, but it wasn’t possible, due to the fault of both of us, and so we went to Caracas together to talk about his life and miracles on the plane.
It was a good experience of a reporter at rest. As he told me about his life, I gradually discovered a personality that did not at all correspond with the despotic image that we had formed via the media. He was another Chávez. Which of the two was the real one?
The loaded argument against him during the campaign was his recent past as a conspirator and coup participant. But the history of Venezuela has absorbed more than four such persons. Starting with Rolando Betancourt, recalled rightly or wrongly as the father of Venezuelan democracy, who brought down Isaías Medina Angarita, a former democratic military officer who tried to purge his country of the 36 years of Juan Vicente Gómez. His successor, the novelist Rómulo Gallegos, was brought down by General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who remained with all powers for almost 11 years. In his turn, he was brought down by an entire generation of democratic youth, who inaugurated the longest period of elected presidents.
The February coup would seem to be the only one that has gone badly for Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías. However, he has perceived it on the positive side as a providential setback. That is his way of understanding good luck, or intelligence, or intuition, or astuteness, or however one can describe that breath of magic that has ruled his acts since he came into the world in Sabaneta, Barinas state, on July 28, 1954, under the sign of power: Leo. Chávez, a convinced Catholic, attributes his beneficent fates to the scapular, more than 100 years old, that he has carried with him since he was a child, inherited from a maternal great-grandfather, Colonel Pedro Pérez Delgado, one of his guardian heroes.
His parents eked out a harsh existence on their elementary school teacher salaries and, from the age of nine, he had to help them by selling candies and fruit at the roadside. At times he went on a donkey to visit his maternal grandmother in Los Rastrojos, a neighboring town which seemed to him like a city because it had a small electric plant providing two hours of light after nightfall, and the midwife who brought him and his four brothers into the world lived there. His mother wanted him to be a priest, but he only got as far as altar boy and sounded the bells with so much grace that everyone recognized him by his ringing. “That’s Hugo ringing,” they would say. Among his mother’s books he found a providential encyclopedia, the first chapter of which immediately seduced him: How to Win in Life.
It was really a compendium of options, and he tried almost all of them. As a painter, astounded by the paintings of Michelangelo and David, he won first prize in a regional exhibition at 12 years of age. As a musician, he made himself indispensable at birthdays and serenades with his mastery of the four-stringed guitar and his fine voice. As a baseball player he became a first-class catcher. The military option was not on the list, neither would it have occurred to him on his own account, until he was told that the best way of reaching the major leagues was to enter the Barinas Military Academy. That must have been another miracle of the scapular, because the Andrés Bello plan, which allowed military school graduates to continue to the highest academic level, was starting then.
He studied political science, history and Marxism-Leninism. He made an impassioned study of the life and works of Bolívar, his greater Leo, whose proclamations he learned by heart. But his first conflict with real politics was the death of Allende in 1973. Chávez did not understand. Why, when the Chilean people elected Allende, did the Chilean military stage a coup? Shortly afterward, his company’s captain assigned him the task of guarding a son of José Vicente Rangel, believed to be a communist. “See how many twists and turns there are in life,” Chávez said with an explosion of laughter. “Now his father is my Foreign Minister.” Even more ironic is that when he graduated, he received the sword from the hands of the president who, 20 years later, he would try to bring down: Carlos Andrés Pérez.
“Moreover,” I said to him, “You were at the point of killing him.” “No way,” Chávez protested. “The idea was to install a constituent assembly and return to barracks.” From the very first moment, I realized that he was a natural narrator. An integral product of Venezuelan popular culture, which is creative and joyful. He has a great sense of managing time and a memory with something of the supernatural, which permits him to recite from memory the poems of Neruda or Whitman, and entire pages of Rómulo Gallegos.
At a very early age, by chance, he discovered that his great-grandfather was not a ‘seven-league assassin’, as his mother said, but a legendary guerrilla in the era of Juan Vicente Gómez. Such was Chávez’ enthusiasm that he decided to write a book to purify Gómez’ memory. He searched through historical archives and military libraries and toured the region from town to town with a historian’s backpack to reconstruct the routes of his great-grandfather from the testimonies of his survivors. From that moment, he incorporated his great-grandfather into the altar of his heroes and began to carry the protective scapular which had belonged to him.
On one of those days he crossed the border without realizing it via the Arauca bridge, and the Colombian captain who searched his backpack found in it sufficient evidence to charge him with spying: he was carrying a camera, a tape recorder, secret papers, photos of the region, a military map with graphics and two regulation pistols. His identity documents, as befits a spy, could have been false. The discussion lasted for a number of hours in an office where the only painting was a portrait of Bolívar on horseback. “I was almost worn out,” Chávez told me, “because the more I tried to explain, the less he understood me.” Until the saving phrase came to him. “See how life is, Captain: barely one century ago, we were one and the same army, and this man who is looking at us from the painting was the chief of both of us. How can I be a spy?” The captain, moved, began to talk wonders of Gran Colombia, and the two of them ended the night drinking beer from both countries in an Arauca bar. The next morning, with a shared headache, the captain gave Chávez back his historian’s equipment and bade him farewell with an embrace in the middle of the international bridge.
“From that era the concrete idea came to me that something was going badly in Venezuela,” Chávez said. In Oriente, he had been appointed commander of a squad of 13 soldiers with communications equipment to liquidate the last guerrilla redoubts. One night of heavy rain, an intelligence colonel with a patrol of soldiers and some allegedly just-captured guerrillas – in greens and pure flesh and bone – asked for shelter in the camp. At around 10:00pm, when Chávez was falling asleep, he heard heartrending cries from the adjoining room. “The soldiers were beating the prisoners with baseball bats wrapped in rags so as not to leave stains,” Chávez recounted. Indignant, he insisted that the colonel hand over the prisoners or leave, because he could not accept anyone being tortured in his command. “The next day, he threatened me with a military trial for disobedience,” Chávez related, “but they only had me under observation for a time.”
A few days later he had another experience that superceded the previous ones. He was buying meat for his squad when a military helicopter landed in the patio of the barracks with a cargo of soldiers badly wounded in a guerrilla ambush. Chávez carried in his arms a soldier with a number of bullets in his body. “Don’t let me die, lieutenant…” he said, terrified. Chávez barely managed to get him into a car. A further seven died. That night, lying awake in his hammock, Chávez asked himself, “Why am I here?” On one side campesinos dressed as soldiers were torturing campesinos dressed in greens. At this stage, when the war had ended, there was no sense in firing shots at anyone.” And he concluded in the plane taking us to Caracas, “There, I fell into my first existential conflict.”
The next day he awoke convinced that his destiny was to found a movement. And he did so at 23 years of age, with a self-explanatory name: the Bolivarian Army of the People of Venezuela. Its founder members: five soldiers and himself, with his rank of second lieutenant. “To what end?” I asked him. Very simple, he said, “To the end of preparing ourselves in case something happened.” One year later, now as a parachute officer in a Maracay tank battalion, he began to conspire on a large scale. But he clarified that he used the word conspiracy only in its figurative sense of convening wills for a common task.
That was the situation on December 17, 1982 when an unexpected episode took place which Chávez considers decisive in his life. By then he was a captain in the second parachute regiment, and aide to the intelligence officer. When he least expected it, the commander of the regiment, Angel Manrique, commissioned him to give a speech to 1,200 men, including officers and troops.
At one in the afternoon, with the battalion already lined up on the football pitch, the master of ceremonies announced him. “And your speech,” the regiment commander asked him, seeing him climb onto the platform without any papers. “I have no written speech,” said Chávez. And he began to improvise. It was a brief speech, inspired by Bolívar and Martí, but with his personal harvest concerning the situation of pressure and injustice in Latin America 200 years after its independence. The officers, his and not his, heard him impassively. Among them were Captains Felipe Acosta Carle and Jesús Urdaneta Hernández, sympathizers with his movement. Highly displeased, the barracks commander received it with a reproach that could be heard by everyone, “Chávez, you sound like a politician.” “Understood,” Chávez replied.
Felipe Acosta, two meters tall and who couldn’t have fitted in 10 containers, stopped in front of the commander and said to him, “You are mistaken, commander. Chávez is no politician. He is a captain of those of today, and when you hear what he said in his speech, you’ll piss in your pants.”
Then Colonel Manrique called the troop to order and said, “I want you to know that what was said by Captain Chávez was authorized by me. I gave him the order to give this speech, and everything that he said, although he did not bring it in writing, he told me yesterday.” He paused for effect and concluded with a strict order, “This goes no further than here!”
Immediately afterward, Chávez went jogging with Captains Felipe Acosta and Jesús Urdaneta to the Samán del Güere, 10 kilometers distant, and there they repeated the solemn oath of Simón Bolívar on Mount Aventino. “Finally, of course, I made a change,” Chávez told me. Instead of “when we have broken the chains which oppress us at the will of the Spanish power,” they said, “Until we break the chains which oppress us and oppress the people at the will of the powerful.”
From then on, all officers joining the secret movement had to swear that oath. The last time was during the electoral campaign, before 100,000 people. For years they organized clandestine congresses every time more numerous, with military representatives from all over the country. “Over two days, we held meetings in secret hideouts, studying the situation in the country, analyzing, making contact with civilian groups, friends. In 10 years—Chávez told me—we had five congresses without being discovered.”
At this stage of the dialogue, the President laughed mischievously and revealed a mischievous grin, “Well, we have always said that at first we were three. But now we can say that there was in fact a fourth man, whose identity we always concealed in order to protect him, given that he wasn’t discovered on February 4, and remained active in the Army, reaching the rank of colonel. But we’re in 1999, and can now reveal that this fourth man is here with us on this plane.” He pointed with a finger to the fourth man in a separate seat, and said, “Colonel Baduel!”
According to the idea that Comandante Chávez has of his life, the culminating event was the Caracazo, the popular uprising which devastated Caracas. He used to repeat, “Napoleon said that a battle is decided in a second of inspiration of the strategy.” On the basis of this thinking, Chávez developed three concepts: one, the historic hour. The other, the strategic minute. And, finally, the second tactic. “We were uneasy, because we didn’t want to leave the Army,” Chávez said. “We had formed a movement, but we weren’t clear why.” However, the tremendous drama was what was going to happen and they were not prepared. “In other words—Chávez concluded—the strategic minute surprised us.”
He was, of course, referring to the popular riot of February 27, 1989: the Caracazo. He was one of the most taken by surprise. Carlos Andrés Pérez had just assumed the presidency with a huge vote and it was inconceivable that, within 20 days, something so serious would take place. “I was going to the university, where I was doing a postgraduate degree, on the night of the 27th, and I went into Tiuna Fort to find a friend who would give me a bit of gas to get home,” Chávez related minutes before we landed in Caracas. “Then I saw that they were pulling out the troops, and asked a colonel, ‘Where are all these soldiers going?’ Because they were pulling out the Logistics soldiers who weren’t trained for combat and far less for street combat. They were recruits scared of the very guns they were carrying. So I asked the colonel, ‘Where’s this load of soldiers going?’ And the colonel told me, ‘To the streets, to the streets.’ The order they gave was, ‘You have to stop this business any way you can, let’s go.’ My God, but what order did they give them? ‘Well Chávez,’ the colonel replied, ‘the order is to stop this business any way you can.’ And I said to him, ‘But Colonel, can you imagine what could happen?’ and he said to me, ‘Well, Chávez, it’s an order and there’s nothing that can be done. It’s God’s will.’”
Chávez said that he had a high fever due to an attack of measles, and when he started his car he saw a young soldier coming running, with his helmet fallen off, his gun dangling and munitions scattered. “So, I stopped and called him,” Chávez said. “And he got in, all nervous, sweating, a young boy of 18. And I asked him, ‘Uh-huh, and where are you going running like this?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s that my squad left me behind, and my lieutenant’s gone ahead in the truck, Take me, major, take me.’ And I caught up with the truck and asked the driver, ‘Where are you going?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know anything. Who’s going to know, imagine?’”
Chávez took a breath and almost shouted, drowning in the anguish of that terrible night, “You do know, you’re sending the soldiers onto the streets, scared stiff, with a gun and 50 cartridges, and they’re going to waste them all. They raked the streets with bullets, raked the hills, the popular barrios. It was a disaster! That’s what it was: thousands, and among them Felipe Acosta. And instinct told me that they were sending them out to kill,” said Chávez. “It was the minute we were waiting for to act.” Said and done: from that moment he began to plan the coup that failed three years later.
The plane landed in Caracas at three in the morning. Out of the little window I saw the swamp of lights of that unforgettable city where I lived through three crucial years for Venezuela, as they were also for my life. The President bade me farewell with his Caribbean embrace and an implicit invitation, “See you here on February 2.” As he moved into the distance among his bodyguard of decorated soldiers and friends from the outset, I was shaken by the inspiration that I had traveled and conversed with enjoyment with two opposites. One whom inveterate fate was offering the opportunity to save his country, and the other, an illusionist, who could pass into history as one more despot.
Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez is a Colombian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter and journalist, known affectionately as Gabo throughout Latin America. Considered one of the most significant authors of the 20th century, he was awarded the 1972 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, and is the earliest remaining living recipient. García Márquez was the first Colombian and fourth Latin American to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. He pursued a self-directed education that resulted in his leaving law school for a career in journalism. From early on, he showed no inhibitions in his criticism of Colombian and foreign politics. He started as a journalist, and has written many acclaimed non-fiction works and short stories, but is best known for his novels, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985). His works have achieved significant critical acclaim and widespread commercial success, most notably for popularizing a literary style labeled as magic realism, which uses magical elements and events in otherwise ordinary and realistic situations. Some of his works are set in a fictional village called Macondo (the town mainly inspired by his birthplace Aracataca), and most of them express the theme of solitude.