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Mourning After

Hugo, the hero

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FINAL FAREWELL: A girl kisses a poster of Hugo Chavez in Caracas

Chavez's life is the stuff of movies. He is that larger-than-life archetype, that Robin Hood, that David who slays Goliath - or at least holds him at bay.

On the eve of Hugo Chavez's demise, while randomly scanning Facebook and Twitter posts on this news, I suddenly find myself furiously slapping down some poor American woman for parroting vitriolic US mantras on the man and his economic policies. Not only do I go to great lengths to explain and defend the late Venezuelan president's economic policies which have revolutionised the way South America does business and broken the stranglehold of the IMF, but I feel compelled to defend, rather passionately, the man himself. A man I have often myself described in the past as "embarrassingly clownlike". Why did I do that? Guilt over my half-American roots? A momentary and subjective response triggered by my distaste for kicking someone when they're down, or, in this case, dead? Moments later, I receive an email asking me to contribute an article on Chavez from my personal perspective.

I grew up in Caracas during the oil boom in the '60s and '70s. I lived in the upmarket neighbourhood of Altamira, attended an expensive private school, and had my bed made and my clothes washed and ironed by a series of maids - members of the predominant working class demographic - who treated me with love and respect in spite of my spoiled, privileged, and entirely ignorant condition. To get to my school, one had to pass through the slum of Las Minas. I have described a version of my school in my novel, The Disappearance of Irene dos Santos as: "built with American oil money, which shone like a sparkling jewel in the sun above the filthy, poverty-stricken barrio. " But at the time, even though I passed through it every day from Monday to Friday, I never really looked out the school bus window;I never considered that barrio or the humans in it, to have anything to do with me. And neither did 99 per cent of the adults in my minority world of privileged beneficiaries of American oil concerns in that country.

At midnight, digging through some piles of photographs from Venezuela, I find some from the '60s on a farm some ten hours drive inland from Caracas. I am around eight years old. In the photographs I am with several children - some of them are local. In some photographs, we are covered with mud from a dip in the local watering hole. In others, we are riding ponies, or swinging in hammocks, or eating arepas, with butter dribbling down our chins, or with our parents and some locals, who are playing the cuatro and singing. In all of these photographs all the faces are the same: healthy, smiling, exhilarated. And I realise what I carry from Venezuela, and what I love about Venezuelans it is their energy, their ability to love life largely, no matter what the circumstances, that holds me enthralled, and which I sought to capture in my novel. But even more than that, I cut my teeth on the peculiarly South American ability to live comfortably with what is real and empirical and what is only inferred, intuited or dreamed. And so, I sought to recreate the archetype of the folk hero we still yearn for in fiction, where the author can, like the gods, decide that the hero who stands up to injustice and oppression wins. And to some extent, Hugo Chavez, was that.

Like my character Efrain, who sells trinkets made by his grandmother to tourists at the foothills of Sorte, home to the mythological Venezuelan cult goddess, Maria Lionza, Hugo Chavez grew up in rural poverty and made money selling his grandmother's coconut sweets in Barinas, where he attended school. And like Efrain, who has prophetic visions, he runs the risk of being worshiped by crackpots through no conscious agency of his own. The life and times of Hugo Chavez is the stuff of telenovelas and movies, and no doubt some will be made about him. He is that larger-than-life archetype, that Robin Hood, that David who slays Goliath - or at least holds him at bay. He stood at the UN and openly confronted his more powerful aggressor, and much of the world, at least secretly, cheered.

Apart from Chavez's undeniable legacy of paving the way for South America's economic sovereignty and independence from the neoliberal economic policies of the North, his stunning ability to survive attempts to dislodge him is the stuff of action-hero story-telling. And the immense popular support he was capable of rallying among civilians as well as young and mid-level officers in the military, the fact that he was elected by popular majority more than 10 times, tells us something important about his character.

For example, the actual story of how he survived the 2002 coup by the opposition, with at least a wink from DC, if not fullblown support as in the case of Aristides of Haiti, is something alluded to in Oliver Stone's documentary, South of the Border (which interestingly was blocked overnight on YouTube at the time of writing), but also documented by reputed journalists such as Nicolas Kosloff and others. Essentially what happened over a period of 48 hours was this: a few senior military men defected and joined the opposition in establishing Carmona and sequestering Chavez on an island while the American media reported his ouster as a done deal. However, a majority of junior and mid-level officers informed their seniors that they stood with Chavez and would not support the coup. They installed themselves underneath the palace, essentially holding Carmona and the generals hostage. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans streamed into Caracas and surrounded the presidential palace, Miraflores, demanding the reinstatement of their president. Junior officers holding Chavez refused to kill him and instead flew him back to the palace, where he was in fact reinstated. It is the stuff of novels.

In the end, whatever his flaws, and he certainly had them as a leader and as a man, when I think of Hugo Chavez dancing a salsa victory, I am reminded of these words by Alice Walker: "RESISTANCE IS THE SECRET OF JOY!"


Mascarenhas is a novelist.

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