Interview with Nicolas Maduro: "Until the Last Day, Chavez Wanted to Live"

In this interview with Panorama, current interim president Nicolas Maduro told of his experiences with Chavez during his last days, the arrangements made afterwards, and how he himself coped.

By Panorama
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Maduro being interviewed by Panorama (Panorama)
Maduro being interviewed by Panorama (Panorama)

The following is Part 2 of an interview of Nicolas Maduro by Panorama.

When Nicolás Maduro talks about President Chávez his face changes, his eyes too, he swallows hard at times, like a son when talking about a father who is no longer there.

Aren’t there risks of fractures within the PSUV to guarantee this triumph you speak of?

We are in the best moment for motivation, commitment to the ideas of President Chávez, unity amongst ourselves on the politico-military team directing the revolution, among the most distinguished and recognized sectors of the revolution, we have a brotherly relationship.

The blow of losing President Chávez has been terrible, tragic. I, personally, when I wake up in the mornings, I look at the ceiling and think of him, because every morning I got up with the day’s agenda, and that was to call him. It’s incredible because he’s not there anymore physically, but that has motivated us a lot in taking on our responsibilities. It’s not easy, because in effect Chávez is a giant and we are ordinary, common, run-of-the-mill people. The only thing that can fill the giant space of Chávez is the people, the other giant. There are those two giants and us, the articulators of the process which is complex but which will work out well.

What our people did 200 years ago is hard to find in the universal history of humanity. President Chávez reawakened it. I remember once, in Lisbon, Portugal, when we were talking about this subject, because we were travelling a lengthy road and he said to me: “Nicolás, what happened is that our people have always had in their genes the glory of the liberators. No one could take it from them, and that glory was only waiting for someone to press a button.” It’s like pressing a button for the genes to activate once more. He pressed the button of the liberatory genes of the Venezuelan people and that button made it possible to build all the consciousness on which this revolutionary process rests.

There are radicalisms on both sides, especially in Chavismo now. There is so much emotion. It’s a moment that demands responsibility from political actors. What will be your quota of responsibility?

Everything, and we’ve already demonstrated it. Remember, since the day the president was operated, on December 11, we started. Review all the videos. Between Ernesto [Villegas] and myself, who were the official spokespeople, we started by sending a message of peace. We knew it was in the hearts of the people and we knew that the irresponsibility of the opposition, of some of its spokespeople, joking about the president’s illness, prognosticating and making fun of the possible death of the president, could have provoked in Venezuela a “Bogotazo”, a “Gaitanazo”. We faced that possibility every day, and we came out to tell the people and the Bolivarian National armed forces: peace, peace, peace.

That day, March 5, we held a meeting because the doctors had told us that his symptoms were grave. That had already happened in December and January as well, and the Comandante had always overcome those symptoms but this time the doctors told us: “It’s a special situation now”. We ourselves had always believed and prayed to God that he would recover again, because weeks before we had seen him in good spirits. We took precautions, we met with the Military High Command, the entire political-military directorate of the revolution met and we said: “All right, we have to prepare.” If it happened, we would have to deploy all the Armed Forces, all the leaders of the revolution in all the states of Venezuela, to talk to the people and make sure that they, in their grief, would not fall into frustration and a desire for revenge. We were very close to that happening.

On March 5, at 5:15 in the afternoon, I gave the news, that sad and painful news. I almost lost my voice, and when I was done telling the first part, I heard a cry, a scream, and I was afraid. I thought: The violence is exploding, the people’s anger. Fortunately, it was only a cry of grief.

For that reason, when that gentleman candidate of the opposition, whom I’ve called the Pharisee of the hour, the Pontius Pilate of the hour, started to mess with the President, we were in full mourning, holding a wake over the body of the Comandante Hugo Chávez, and he started talking insanities about the day of the Comandante’s death, meddling with his family, with the honor of our Comandante, with the moral purity of Hugo Chávez, I left immediately. If I had stayed one hour longer on Sunday night without leaving, violence could have broken out on the spot.

You were one of the people closest to Chávez from June 11, 2011 (when he announced his first operation) to March 5, 2013. Looking back on his illness, what was the hardest part? Did you prepare mentally for these challenges? How was that year and a half with the president ill?

The spirit and strength of the president at all times was impressive. He underwent some very deep, hard operations, and he always recovered quickly and with great strength. Fundamentally, through his will to live, an energy, a call to life. When he went for chemotherapy, there were five sessions, the first three in Havana, one here in the Military Hospital, and the last one again in Havana. I recall that he called me at 6:00 in the morning, and told me: “Come here”. I arrived at 7:00 and he was in the middle of chemo, which was administered via saline solution, and we stayed nearly till 10 o’clock that night without resting. Around 2:00 in the afternoon he had lunch and rested half an hour, then immediately we started talking, reading, studying. I telephoned Caracas, to give orders, then passed on some messages to him. He got busy painting; he painted a portrait of Néstor Kirchner, a picture of the Moncada Barracks, and one of the Cuartel de la Montaña, where he is now.

Later came the other big blow, in February. We saw he was so strong that no one could have imagined that there had been another recurrence. He had talked for nearly 10 hours in the National Assembly, I believe on the 15th of January. They operated on him and that week we were doing a program in the room right next to his, live. And another, and another, and another.

Then came the radiotherapy, and that was very hard. It was the hardest moment, very hard, but he was undaunted. He completed the radiotherapy, they did tests and he was fine, perfect, and June 11, a year after the first operation, he registered as a candidate. The campaign was intense, clearly, as he said, he went into the ring with his hands tied, that’s why he campaigned like a machine.

The elections happened, a great triumph and, immediately, maybe because of the sudden drop in adrenaline after the election fight, he started to feel a lot of pain.

Every time we talked, he was in a lot of pain. That was a second hard time, after the radiotherapy, after the elections. Because of the pains, he decided to undergo hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy. Sadly, in the middle of that treatment, they examined him, and found, in the same place, a recurrence.

I remember that on Sunday, December 2, I haven’t told this before, he called me. I was in the National Pantheon conducting an inspection of the repairs to the Pantheon, etcetera, for the ceremony on December 17, hoping that his treatment would be over and he would be coming back. In the afternoon I got the call and he told me, “There are complications.” Well, that was a tremendous blow, and he asked me to assemble a commission. There were Diosdado [Cabello], Rafael Ramírez, Cilia [Flores, Maduro's wife], and Jorge Arreaza, and I told them what the experts had found. He always asked for all the details from the doctors, he had the intuition that he would not come out from the operation.

When they told me upon his return that he’d had that intuition, I was almost certain that he would not be wrong and, well, I cried for a long time one morning because I knew it would be that way.

He called me and I went on December 5 to talk, from 10 at night to 6 in the morning, we talked a lot. He would never have told me this, that if he were to die, or something would happen to incapacitate him, I would take the reins of the revolution, that I would assume the presidency and the possibility of a candidacy. He called me in to tell me this personally, during more than six hours of conversation, in the early morning of December 6, in Cuba.

Then we left, in separate airplanes, I arrived first, and he arrived later. He told me: “I’ve decided, and I told the doctors to guarantee it because they wanted to operate on me right away, that I could come back to talk to the people, to tell them all these things. He told only a small part, barely what he wanted to say, because we recommended it, I said, “President, don’t tell this to the people,” and he told me: “It’s my historic responsibility, it’s the least I can do.”

On December 7, we met again, and on the 8th he said what he said. He went, the operation was very hard, as you know, and later came the worst part of all he had lived through. Nearly 90 days of ups and downs, sometimes more downs than ups, of grave situations, managed scientifically and medically the perfect way, correctly. In that moment, all the people who supported us in the world knew that he was in the hands of the best doctors and scientists in the fight against cancer that Cuba had taught, but with the help of many scientist from all over the world.

On December 30, when I read the communiqué, he almost left us, he was very close to it. Suddenly, in January, he miraculously recovered. Until the very last day he wanted to live and believed he would go on living, and gave orders up to the end. That spirit is an immortal spirit, really, and the recognition, the homage the people of Venezuela paid, has been extraordinary. The opinion polls say 70, 80% of Venezuelans recognize that Hugo Chávez has made history in our country. And now it’s up to us, he fought his battle up to the last second, he left a mission yet to be finished. Now it’s up to me to complete this mission as President of the Republic, it’s up to all of us who loved him, this country, to complete that mission.

And what did you feel about witnessing that?

It’s a very difficult responsibility.

Were you afraid?

No. I’m not afraid. The only fear I could have is of failing, but I sense that I’m not going to fail. I’ve come to think that President Chávez prepared me for this. I didn’t know it, but he was preparing me, and I won’t speak individually, he was preparing us to be a cohesive team: Rafael Ramírez, Diosdado, Cilia, all of the Armed Forces, the military chiefs of the High Command, all the young militaries who rose to all the ranks, the PSUV, the Great Patriotic Pole — Comandante Chávez did what was impossible for Bolívar to do. The Liberator could not prepare the country for life after his death. He couldn’t. First they killed Sucre, who was like his son, and who was going to be his political and military heir; then everyone betrayed him — Juan José Flores in Quito, Santander in Bogotá, Páez in Valencia. Urdaneta was the most loyal of the loyal, and he would have been president, had Bolívar lived after 1830 it’s for certain that Urdaneta would have been his new Sucre.

Comandante Chávez believed he would live a while longer, and be at the head of the nation. As well, he believed he would be at the head of the nation without being president of the Republic. He came to think that at a given time, he would do what Fidel has done, and direct with his authority and gigantic morality the new phase of the revolution, and prepare for his departure, but, well, he couldn’t get to that point. He called that the third scenario.

He left us prepared with the Constitution of 1999, he left us his political testament, it’s an extraordinary document to study, he left us precise orders for the work teams, he left the will in my hand, which is not the hand of just one man, or just one human being. I don’t know why he made that decision, I never asked him, my voice wouldn’t come out, it wasn’t pertinent to do so, it never occurred to me to do so. But, well, I took the will of President Chávez, which is a collective will, my hand is that of millions, of a team. He left a prepared team, which is the one we call the politico-military directorate of the revolution, the political high command, the Government, the governors, the Great Patriotic Pole, the Military High command, and our Armed Forces on the whole.

When has this country ever had so much strength? Never, ever. He also left the country’s finances organized, the funds, the income, now everything’s transparent, so now we have no more excuses for failure. We’re prepared for a victory, it’s what I feel in the streets…

In Venezuela I saw an effervescence, I lived it, what I’m seeing now in the streets is the highest level of popular effervescence since 1994. I can only compare it with 1994 and 2006, two peak moments in the mythical and historical leadership of Comandante Chávez. The people are converting their pain and their feelings of having lost their father, their orphanhood, into fervor. I have no vanity of any kind, my ego doesn’t exist, I know these displays of love are not for me, they’re for Chávez. The people look at me and say “We’re voting for you for Chávez, for Chávez’s sake we’re voting for you…” We can’t fail, I’m sure we are going to win by more than 10 million votes, the only thing left is what the people will give us on April 14.

Translation by Sabina Becker