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How Chávez changed my life

How Chávez changed my life

When Hugo Chávez first became president of Venezuela I was sixteen years old and just coming into my political consciousness. Now I am in my thirties.  Through all that time I can think of no political opinion, no vote, no broad social view that has not been affected — even defined — by this singular man and his unstoppable vision. And now he is dead. Officially dead. The enormity of that one fact is such that the myriad uncertainties this news bring with it, for now, seem somehow unimportant. 

In Chávez’s Venezuela I learned about fear. Both the small hyperactive fear of personal danger and the far more overwhelming fear that all is lost; that the revolution has won yet again. To many of us, each new victory brought with it new tragedies. The dispersal of my family to faraway continents. The persecution and imprisonment of friends and colleagues. The expropriations. The violence. 

That is all burned into me now, and countless others. Hugo Chávez: A man whose single-minded pursuit of whatever it was he was pursuing; power, social justice, immortality, redefined Venezuela’s place in the world. 

Pre-Chávez, Venezuela was — for the most part — an invisible country. Unless you had a particular interest in oil, beauty queens, or baseball you might not even know it existed. During this period it became a weird joke among Venezuelans traveling to the United States that, upon telling Americans one came from Venezuela, because of lisped pronunciation, there would be a confusion with Minnesota: "Oh really? I have a cousin in Duluth. How about that?" 

Things could not be more different now. Venezuela’s story might be many things to many people: An inspiration, a cautionary tale, a farce, a Shakespearean tragedy, yet Venezuela’s story is known.  To some that is something that is itself worthy of celebration, to Hugo Chávez it certainly was. By spreading Venezuela’s natural wealth far outside her borders, through oil giveaways and sabre-rattling, this midsized, middle-income country was able to cast an outsized shadow over global politics for many years. 

Client states have flocked to Venezuela as a source of oil largesse, as have others seeking to throw their lot in with the international anti-establishment. Venezuela’s go-to alliances today read like a who’s who of human rights violators: Iran, Belarus, Cuba. This from a country that was once so progressive, that it abolished capital punishment in 1863. 

On Tuesday, during a surprise press conference that said very little, acting president Nicolas Maduro explained his belief that Chávez’s cancer had been secretly imposed upon him by some advanced United States technology: A desperate despicable act by an Empire who could not defeat him by playing fair. Irrational paranoid statements such as these have become common, an embarrassment to many Venezuelans and gospel truth to many others. 

It cannot be denied that Hugo Chávez has died as he lived, polarizing and forever unbowed. Yet for all that Venezuela remains the same nation of contrasts it was before Chávez: rich and poor, left and right. Only now these sides view one another as visceral enemies, not political foes. In Caracas tonight there are wails and fireworks, dirges and the sounds of champagne corks being popped. 

In the end, the world Chávez created once again teeters on the brink, as it has so many times before. Yet tonight it does so without its charismatic anchor into the hearts of the population. The future is uncertain and unsettling for all sides of the political spectrum.  Regardless there will be time tomorrow to worry about tomorrows. Tonight, for Venezuelans, will be about coming to terms with the past. 

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.