I SEEM TO FIND MYSELF in this country during its most precarious and historic moments — many of them thanks to a leader who has left his indelible mark, in one way or another, on us all: Hugo Chávez.
I was born in the sleepy port town of San Pedro, California. My mother was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. Most, if not all of mother's family lives in Venezuela, including my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and many friends.
I started traveling back and forth in 2001 when the then newly appointed president was hosting his “big brother” Fidel Castro on his first official visit to the country. In 2004, I was living on the east side of Caracas when voters went to the polls for a referendum, the first ever in the nation's history, to oust Chávez from office. In 2006, when Chávez won the presidency by one of the widest margins in history, I remember what it looked like on the streets of Horizonte as people cheered over the defeat of an opposition candidate who wanted nothing to do with running for president in the first place.
After leaving Venezuela for the United States in 2007, I find myself back here now, six years later, in a Bolivarian state whose future is very much up in the air, and whose legacy after Chávez’s death is as difficult to define as the man who created it.
Whose Venezuela is this exactly, and can one truly be called “Chavista”? Is it the Venezuela of social programs and social equality for all, or the other Venezuela, with its genocide-like murder rate, incomprehensible inflation, protests in the streets, power outages, food shortages, rampant drug trafficking, unthinkable poverty, and infrastructure problems that would make India blush?
A solid percentage of the population loved their president. Chávez was one of the first politicians to not only speak to the poor, but to acknowledge their existence in the first place. His social programs weren’t so much about giving the people things they need as it was giving them an identity. There is confusion for many outside of Venezuela as to how Chávez could be so celebrated while the OPEC country he ruled for 14 years turned into one of the richest failing states in memory. When an impoverished people are given just a morsel of hope through some social programs, food banks, new housing and free health care, it buys political capital for years to come. While the roof caves in on their heads, they thank the commander for at least having the floor they stand on.
I flew to Caracas on March 1, 2013, to visit family and friends, and mend some fences with people I cared about. I’d intended the trip to be about embracing some new changes in my life, and coming full circle. Plus, I missed the country and my loved ones. I missed the weather and rhythm. I need to be there, to spend some time.
When I arrived, I found a tense city teetering with uncertainty. No one knew where Chávez was or what state he was in. Even while a mystery, the questioning, of ourselves, of our country, was already underway.
Is Chávez dead or alive? It was all anyone could talk about.
“He's dead,” said Antonio, a cab driver who lives in San Agustin. “Chávez has been dead for months.”
Cab drivers in...read more