The frantic assent of the masses, when in 1998 Hugo Chávez promised to break the back of the traditional parties and parboil the oligarchs, portended a resurrection of old-style personal rule in Latin America. Convinced that symbiosis between ruler and people was possible, the latter-day disciple of Simón Bolívar possessed the essential tools for the job he undertook: an unflagging charisma, billions of petrodollars, and more poor people than rich on the electoral rolls.
The knight of the red beret was laid low by a tumor about the size of a baseball, as he prayed to God for more life in which to consolidate the institutional and ideological revolution he raised 14 years ago out of the ashes of the two-party (Social Democrat/Christian Democrat) system that had alternated in power since 1958. "God, don't take me yet. I have a lot left to do for the people," he implored in April, a rosary round his neck. In military style, the former paratrooper colonel negotiated his ground-breaking road map like a Mexican landlord facing rowdy peons. "I'm listening to offers," he said with a pistol on the table.
The political arsenal he possessed in the form of state paternalism for the poorest classes explains much of the success of this man who liked to sing, dance and recite verse in public, appointed and dismissed officials on television, and delighted the national machismo when he announced from the palace balcony the imminence of sexual relations with María Isabel Rodríguez, his second wife: "Marisabel, tonight I'm going to give you what you've got coming!" Bluff, seductive, authoritarian, unscrupulous, nobody won such veneration among the poorest classes of a nation of 29 million, accustomed to subsidies and providential heroes.
You ask a minister to prepare a report, cook a stew, hop over to the United States a minute to talk with a bank, then take the children to a baseball game"
"He needs to be adored. He's a narcissist," said the psychiatrist Eduardo Chirinos, who treated him in prison after his failed coup of 1992, which catapulted him to fame and political prominence. And so he died, amid the idolatry of his adherents, with all the strings of the state in his hands, and indices of poverty falling, thanks to some $400 billion worth of social investment in the previous decade. The clear parliamentary majorities delivered time and again to his party enabled him to short-circuit the appropriate counterweights of representative democracies and legislate without hindrance; but he was not a dictator because all his acts of government were legal, either because he legalized them after the fact, or because he had previously promulgated the laws that justified them.
Few would begrudge Chávez his sincere empathy with the very poor, most of them with African blood in their veins, who embraced the Bolivarian cause with all the gratitude and fidelity of people who felt that at last they had a champion against the traditional supremacy of the white proprietor class. He was a brilliant chief, unpredictable, contradictory, erratic, partial to social Darwinism, hard-wired for confrontation. Lacking in clearly defined ideology, he was very disorganized. Ignacio Arcaya, ex-ambassador in Washington, remarks in his memoirs that Chávez often called at hours such as four in the morning.
"I told him once: 'Hugo, the main cause of the disorganization is you.' 'Why do you say that,' he asked. 'Well, because you ask a minister to prepare a report on education, cook a stew, hop over to the United States a minute to talk with a bank, come back, then take the children to a baseball game. And you just can't do this'."
"Give me your crown, Christ. Give me your cross, a hundred crosses, but give me life," he prayed before an image of the Nazarene crowned with thorns. He did not seem to have much life left by then, when he admitted his own fragility to a crazed crowd: "Go easy, go easy."