Sunday evening I was standing at a bus stop in Caracas when a small caravan of official-looking cars came past following a motorcycle escort. I said to the woman standing next to me that I thought one of the vehicles probably carried President Chavez returning from his morning radio and television program, Alo Presidente, which had been broadcast from the Andean city of Merida.
The woman replied by asking a question: Did I know that President Chavez sometimes went out at night without protection to visit with the people on the street?
Whether her perception of Chavez was based in reality or rumor is not important. For her, there was no doubt about what she was saying. In spite of the possibility that Chavez might have just passed us in a vehicle with blinded windows, she knew of a Chavez that wanted to be close to his people.
Her opinion was not different from the elderly man who told me that Chavez was like his own grandson and then corrected himself by adding, “No, he is my grandson.” A blood relationship? Maybe, if one was willing to go back to the first white men who touched Venezuelan soil. But otherwise, it was a matter of affection, of a leader who made this old man feel he was a part of the same family.
A barrio woman cooking food to sell on the streets said very directly, “Chavez? I love him.”
And when I saw Chavez driving the vehicle when he went to vote on August 15, I turned and looked at the faces of the people surrounding me. They were awestruck. I don’t think it was because they had just been close to Chavez—his car passed by rapidly. It was because he was driving the car—just as they might do. He knows how to drive a car, he knows how to play baseball, he likes to eat an arepa—that essential part of most Venezuelan’s diets.
I think this is something that the opposition leaders simply don’t realize. People identify with Chavez. Even more importantly, many people love him.
And strange as it may seem to some, I don’t think it is for what he might do for them. Rather it is for what they will be able to do for themselves, given the opportunity.
A few months ago I was with a journalist friend when he asked some street vendors why they supported Chavez. A common reply was, “because now we can work.” They explained how the Metropolitan Police used to come and shut down their small stands, carry off their merchandise and jail them for 48 hours.
While waiting for Chavez to vote on August 15, I heard a married couple beg the mayor of the Libertador district of Caracas, Freddy Bernal, for help in getting medical treatment for their son. Bernal responded that he was not a doctor, nor was it necessary to have his intervention to get aid. They had rights to that assistance.
It was not the response they had wanted and Bernal finally gave them the name of someone they could contact if they continued to have problems in getting assistance. But Bernal’s response was similar to the message of Chavez: the role of government is not to give people things but to make sure that citizens have access to their basic rights, something that has been denied them for generations.
Chavez is not a perfect human being nor a perfect president. But he has touched hearts and instilled hope in the long-overlooked Venezuelan. Chavez seems to have his feet on the ground. That’s where most people have their feet.
What the opposition leaders need to do today is to stop whining like crybabies, drive their own cars and walk around the barrios and villages of Venezuela. They should eat a few arepas and spend less time in the five-star hotels, fancy restaurants and country clubs.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. They don’t have to do these things. No one can insist on such activities. But if they want to win future elections, they better give some thought to who they are and with whom they want to share their fate.