Unlike most, I didn’t have my Chávez obituary ready. Folly, I know. But I also made a conscious decision to put it on the back burner for a few days. I may have missed the media frenzy, but if you’re not totally sick of reading about the passing of Venezuelan leader Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, here’s my two cents.
Starting around 4:45 on Tuesday, March 5th, my facebook wall and twitter feed were filled with the laments of mourners, obituaries, links to photo essays, exclamations of grief and of hope, and exhortations for a country divided to remain calm and be sensible. It’s a lot to take in. It’s a big deal when a head of state dies, but an even bigger deal when your head of state dies. And yet, Chávez wasn’t actually mine. He led a country I called home for a time, and though I have been tear gassed on Caracas streets, though I dance salsa like a Venezuelan, speak a lilting, eat-your-esses, caraqueño Spanish, and make arepas with the best of them, I’m still just a girl from suburban Colorado.
Much of what you’ll read over the next few days and months on Chávez’ death and the transition to a new government comes from people I worked with, people I went dancing with, people I debated with over the relative merits of some rum or another in one breath, and some policy or misión in another. Anything I write won’t compare to the access enjoyed by Jon Lee Anderson, or the passion for the paradox from Francisco Toro. Jens Gould, Simon Romero, Rory Carroll, Juan Nagel, Peter Wilson, and many more have several lovely turns of phrase in an attempt to sum up a man who was so adored, so reviled, so polarizing, so mesmerizing, so befuddling.
I won’t try to add to their stories, try to tease out the politics or predict what comes next. I can tell you, though, that Chávez had a tremendous influence in my life, though somewhat indirectly. Though I never met him, he opened doors for me and he shut them in my face. Through telling the stories of the country, mythology, government, and cult of personality he created, I found myself a different person. I cut my teeth as a writer, a journalist, a feminist, and an economist picking apart his words and policies, talking to his constituents, listening to his endless cadenas. I made some close, dear and wonderful friends, some native Venezuelans, some who ended up in Venezuela by chance, some who followed the almost unbelievable story that was Chávez. I quit the second real job I ever held in journalistic defiance of a Chávez-sympathizing (Chávez-bankrolled?) editorial board who mangled my words to fit their narrative. I made friends of strangers and enemies of friends debating Chávez, his programs, and his legacy. I was granted job interviews where the interviewers told me straight up they really just wanted to hear about my time in Venezuela and no real intention of hiring me (yes, more than once).
It may seem like a lot for any one man to have had such an influence, but Venezuela was, and still is, very much a world that is steeped in Chávez. My being in Venezuela, my friends’ and colleagues’ being in Venezuela, whether by choice or fate, was shaped so dramatically and fully by him. No other country I’ve spent time in has been quite like that, where the totality of an experience is so profoundly based in a single individual.
I’m not sure how well any of us can really convey that. I’ve tried. Many more have tried harder. And though plenty of people will try to explain to you what is going on in Venezuela over the next few days and months, I’m sure that most of them have no idea. For all her outward friendliness and beauty, Venezuela is not an easy place to know, and Chávez only made it harder.
What we do know is that lots of people are mourning today, and will be for some time, officially or unofficially. A very large segment of the Venezuelan population genuinely loved and adored him. Even for those that didn’t, his passing leaves a gaping hole in Venezuelan politics, in the Venezuelan psyche, and the future is rather uncertain.
I can’t imagine there will ever be another like him. My condolences to his family, his admirers, and the people of Venezuela. May he rest in peace.