On Friday 8 March, the Venezuelan people, and many around the world, watched Hugo Chavez’s funeral. The thrice-elected Venezuelan president had lost his battle against cancer only three days before, and his supporters were still struggling to assimilate the loss.
Chavez’s body was taken to the Fuerte Tiuna Military Academy in Caracas, situated at the end of the great Heroes Avenue, dedicated to the heroes of Venezuela’s 19th century independence struggle, including Simon Bolivar. Inside, Chavez’s body was placed in an open casket for his supporters to pass by and leave a final message.
This article is not an examination of the gains and shortcomings of Chavez’s presidency, done capably elsewhere, nor a summary of his achievements, which are numerous. Rather, this is an account of how ordinary Venezuelans, in their millions, said goodbye to their president in an act which will take its place in Venezuelan history.
With Chavez’s body being taken to Fuerte Tiuna and his funeral scheduled for Friday, his supporters around the country wasted no time mobilising themselves to go to Caracas. The Andean city of Merida was no exception, and I set off with a group of teachers and activists in one of the numerous buses leaving on Wednesday night.
As we drew closer to Caracas, the size of the Chavista mobilisation became clear. Every bus for kilometres was packed with red-clad passengers, every service station overflowing with a red tide. I’d been to some pretty big Chavista demonstrations in the past, but Heroes Avenue on Thursday evening was the biggest single human gathering I’d ever personally witnessed. The length of the queue waiting to enter the Fuerte Tiuna Military Academy to see Chavez was kilometres long, snaking way out the Heroes Avenue and into the city. Officials estimated that just in one day two million people had travelled to the capital to see their fallen leader.
Here they had come to pay their respects to the man who for fourteen years as president had sung, joked, hugged and debated with his people. They had come to pay tribute to the man who, through his style and his policies, had recognised, included and empowered the poor majority from the urban barrios and rural campo for the first time in Venezuela’s history. Now, after Chavez’s untimely death, having just elected him to a third term in office five months earlier, they were not going to leave him to await the formal ceremonies alone. The queues were such that the government later extended the period available to see Chavez to seven days, having underestimated the scale of the mobilisation from supporters to see the Comandante.
Our group lasted until 4am on Thursday morning, chatting with other participants and queuing, before the need to sleep conquered our hopes of entering the military academy. However I believe that most of those present, with their provisions, chairs, umbrellas and blankets, would have queued for a month to see their president, and maintained their continuous shuffle toward the doors of the building.
Inclusion over formality
The early morning sun awoke us on the grassy area next to the Military Academy where both our group and hundreds of others had taken a few hours to rest. It was the morning of the funeral, and the queues to see the president appeared as long as the night before. Furthermore, thousands were continuing to stream into the city every hour. Great crowds had also formed to watch the funeral on screens outside the Military Academy. Venezuelan flags fluttered at half-mast along the walls of Fuerte Tiuna and the Heroes Avenue, with a huge image of Chavez draped across the Academy’s walls reading, “From ‘For Now’ to ‘Forever More’: Until the Eternal Victory Comandante”, evoking Chavez’s notorious catchphrase.
Supporters, solidarity activists and journalists milled around the area. Street vendors also drifted about, offering that much-needed morning coffee. Groups representing the entire Bolivarian Revolution were present, from the army and socialist party members to social movements and community council activists; the multitudes who, in one way or another, had their lives touched by the dreams, ideas and policies of Chavez.
In one of Venezuela’s most hallowed places, by mid-morning the grass had been ground to dust while empty water bottles piled up on the side of Heroes Avenue. I noted to a member of my group that the space had been completely opened up to the public, from the ability to enter and sleep overnight to the right to pass by Chavez’s body. Meanwhile, the Bolivarian National Guard and the Mission Barrio Adentro provided those present with water, free medical attention and other forms of assistance. “It’s what Chavez would have wanted, the inclusion of everyone,” my companion said. Indeed, in his funeral, as in life, that was Chavez: content over formality, what was important over what was required to maintain appearances.
Then, presidents from around the world and high profile figures from Venezuelan society arrived to attend the funeral. It was, as Nicolas Maduro later said, almost a full session of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). We saw Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Peru’s Ollanta Humala, among others, their presence a reminder of the changes taking place across the continent that Chavez played a key role in inspiring.
Venezuelan foreign minister Elias Jaua and Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s designated political successor, arrived, and approached the crowd. They shook hands and chanted with supporters. “Chavez lives, the struggle continues!” went one. “With Chavez and Maduro, the people are safe!” rang another. Sadness, passion and determination all ran into one, while Maduro stretched his clenched fist toward us and sweat ran down his face.
“These tears are watering the seed you planted”
Sadness, passion and determination. Observing faces and listening to what people had to say, those were the emotions expressed by the masses who turned out for Chavez’s funeral. As one man, Daniel Lapiz from Sucre state, expressed to me:
“It’s something between great sadness and joy. Sadness, because now we’re not going to have Chavez, we’re not going to be behind our Comandante like we were in every march, every demonstration, following him, smiling with him, listening to him, his stories, his songs, his jokes, and his lack of respect for protocol. I feel as if a part of my heart has gone”.
Referring to the resurgence of political rights under Chavez and the ending of the state repression and assassinations which occurred in the 1960s to 1990s, he said, “At the same time, I feel proud of all the good examples, and the right to openly say: I’m from the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or another [political] party. We’ve only had that freedom under the Comandante president”.
Maria de Carmen, an activist from the Francisco de Miranda Front, a pro-Chavez youth organisation, said she felt proud to be attending Chavez’s funeral.
“I’ve been here for three days, supporting the leader of the revolution, giving him his goodbye, accompanying him in his final moment. More than anything else I feel proud to be here representing this leader, who taught us, who loved us, and who gave everything he had to build what we have today”.
When I asked another supporter, health administration worker Juan Torrealba, how he felt, he could only respond, “There are no words. It’s indescribable. We are all Chavez”.
I also wanted to ask those present what they felt Chavez’s legacy was, and why so many people had turned out to support him on the day of his funeral. They told me that Chavez was “the people’s president”, “the second Liberator of Latin America” and even “the Christ of the poor”.
“He was the people’s president. He came from the people, not from the capitalist ruling class that was used to getting rich from looting the country. He came from the people, from eating dirt like the people, and he knew how the people felt and what they needed. This was the true impact that the Comandante president had,” said Daniel Lapiz.
“He left us a nation,” said another man, a trumpeter and community council activist from Yaracuy state.
“He showed us the homeland: that is the memory of our great Comandante Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias. He planted the seeds of the new homeland, he liberated us, he planted in us consciousness, love, peace; he planted those values in the poor, the old, the humble, the disabled, in all the people that were in need of a good government. Chavez planted himself in our hearts,” the man continued, tears running down his face as others gathered in to cheer their agreement.
I came across solidarity activists from Haiti, one of whom told me that Chavez had been “a humanist and great revolutionary, a teacher, a brother”. The Haitians wanted to pay tribute to the man who had cancelled Haiti’s debt to Venezuela in recognition of Haiti’s historical role in the struggle for Venezuela’s independence, as well as to thank Venezuela’s massive aid effort to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake.
Every person I spoke to also expressed their determination to continue the Bolivarian process and to ensure that Nicolas Maduro was elected as the next president of Venezuela, fulfilling the wish Chavez made in his last public address on December 8. The Haitian activists were emphatic that the Venezuela and Latin America of today “is Chavez’s legacy”. “We need to be at the front to make sure that this process continues its forward march,” one added.
The widespread desire for the continuance of the Bolivarian process suggests the falsity of the notion that support for Chavez was something curried by oil money, induced by fear, or brought on by the hoodwinking of the ignorant masses with populist discourse: all of which were peddled by a dishonest and misleading international media campaign to mask the reality of Chavez’s presidency.
Eventually silence fell over the Heroes Avenue, and all eyes turned to the screens projecting the funeral underway inside the Fuerte Tiuna Military Academy. The numerous international figures and members of Venezuelan public life, from conductor Gustavo Dudamel to London 2012 Olympic medallist Ruben Limardo, highlighted the immense national and international impact of Chavez during his lifetime. World leaders paid their respects, and Nicolas Maduro gave an emotive speech in which he said that Chavez’s “soul and spirit are so strong that his body could not handle it, and now his soul and spirit roam the universe, spreading and filling us with blessing and love.”
“He left us the task of continuing to build this democratic socialist model that he began,” Maduro added.
Perhaps the moment of the funeral was when Venezuelan singer Cristóbal Jiménez, backed by the Simon Bolivar Symphonic Orchestra conducted by Dudamel, performed “Linda Barinas” (Lovely Barinas), the emblematic folk song from Chavez’s home state of Barinas. The song describes the beautiful landscape of the open llanos (plains) of the region, and as the harp plucked out the melody of the llanero song, the chorus ran:
land of the plains,
path of palms and the sun,
where it’s always most beautiful,
in the evening,
when the shade of the trees,
brushes the landscape.
And so it was that world leaders and millions of Venezuelans assembled on a sunny Friday morning to listen to an old llanero folk song. For at the end of the day, that’s who they felt Chavez was: an ordinary and yet extraordinary man from the plains of Barinas, who rose to the presidency and led a movement which transformed Venezuela. On the way he won the love of the majority of his people, who saw in him one of their own. He wasn’t a dictator, a power hungry caudillo, or the buffoonish “monkey” that the country’s upper classes and Western elites so despised. With all his human faults, his ability to make mistakes, and his at times brusque manner of speaking to his opponents, he came across as a caring, charismatic, strong-willed, intelligent and yet humble man who fought for a fairer society and a better world. In that struggle, despite all the mud slung against him and his followers, he touched the lives of millions in his own country and around the globe.
Listening to Nicolas Maduro’s speech that night on the bus home, as he accepted the temporary presidency and swore to continue Chavez’s leadership, it also appeared that the Comandante had done enough to ensure that the Bolivarian process will continue shaping Venezuela after his the departure of his physical presence.
The manner in which so many Venezuelans said goodbye to their president gives a certain idea of the nature of Chavez and his presidency. It was a sentiment expressed by Mario Escalona, the trumpeter from Yaracuy, better than a foreign journalist ever could:
“I’m here representing this new homeland that our Comandante founded. We come from a struggle; as our Comandante said to us in his final national message. We also come from community councils; we’re spokespersons of community councils, people’s power, the tool that Hugo Chavez left us. To the whole people of Venezuela and the whole world we say: Chavez didn’t die, he’s in our hearts. Chavez will live forever more; we will remember him forever, as the maximum leader of Latin America and the world. I’ve always said we have three fathers of this homeland: Our all-mighty God, our father Simon Bolivar, and our father who brought this country back to life, Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias. Chavez, wherever you are, I swear loyalty to you, to Nicolas Maduro, to the revolutionary process, and to my country…May my Comandante live forever!”
Note: New York based singer-songwriter Josiah Mortimer has written a tribute song to mark Chavez's passing, which can be listened to here.