God Was Missing but Chávez Went There

On Hugo Chávez's 69th birthday, Jessica Dos Santos reflects on the revolutionary leader's legacy in Venezuela.
JDS Hugo Chavez
VA columnist Jessica Dos Santos argues that Chávez was unparalleled in his willingness to interact directly with the people. (Venezuelanalysis)

Last June saw eastern Venezuela suffer terrible rains. They wreaked havoc in the most impoverished areas of Anzoátegui state.

A friend of mine went there to report. His photos showed lots of destroyed shacks, mattresses in the mud, some beheaded dolls and lost shoes missing their pairs.

My mind instantly traveled to November 2010. At that time, I was in the midst of my 360 hours of mandatory internship (part of journalism studies) in a Venezuelan media outlet. Even getting to work was a challenge, it looked like the sky fell on us every morning.

The days went on and the rains showed no sign of stopping. On December 1st, 2010, Chávez came out on a broadcast to declare a “state of national emergency” and immediately took to the streets to witness the scene first-hand.

That day was the first time I went to Antímano, a sector full of barrios and shacks in western Caracas that I knew nothing about. In fact, all I had heard was that close by, and in a very contrasting fashion, lay the famous and fancy-looking Andrés Bello Catholic University.

That day I also saw Chávez up close and personal. He arrived in a military jeep, picked up a baby named Samuel, asked about his dad, and was outraged to find out that the father had abandoned his child. Then he drove up and up and up into the barrio, got down from his car and continued on foot alongside the people in every sector. He asked questions, he listened, all while his bodyguards and ministers struggled to keep up.

During his visit, he explained that that area was unstable because it used to be a quarry that was exploited to the maximum by rich people. Then authorities blew it up with dynamite, filled it up and built houses for poor people, ignoring the waterways altogether.

I realized why that sector was called “La Piedrera” and wondered about all the other details and stories about Caracas and the country that I knew nothing about. That day had an “easy” solution. Chávez, with his ability to move people, with his discourse that was half psychology and half love, convinced a bunch of people to leave their homes. They would go with him to Fuerte Tiuna and Miraflores Palace, spend the holidays there, and wait for the government to provide safe and dignified houses. The Great Housing Mission was born shortly afterward.

That episode sparked an obsession to learn more about Caracas, to the point of writing a book about it. I likewise decided to travel far and wide in Venezuela, to get to know this country that I did not really know beyond the surface.

During those travels I went to villages deep in the countryside where before Chávez there had been no public services at all. In other words, no phone lines, no public lighting, no pumped water, no roadways, sometimes not even healthcare.

In the humble houses I visited, in places where even God was missing, there was a Chávez poster on the wall. The people would tell me about Chávez, how he had randomly showed up one day to ask how they were doing, to meet their grandchildren, have coffee, borrow the restroom. One woman told me how he once came looking for a seamstress to fix a problem in his pants. This happened without media fanfare, both before and after he was elected president.

I was 21 years old and not that politically inclined, but that’s when I understood the break that Chávez represented in contrast to the decadent bipartisan politics of the second half of the 20th century. He was completely different from the leftist organizations from that era as well.

Chávez was a novelty as a military man too. Venezuela has had plenty of presidents hailing from the military, only they always ended up way more comfortable close to the conservative sectors than to the popular ones.

Chávez would have turned 69 this July 28. Hence my reminiscing of how, when and why I stopped believing he was a “two-faced man” (a nickname the opposition gave him in 1998) and realized he was worth studying and supporting. He deserved to implement his government plans, even if some things went wrong. For starters, ever since the failed 1992 uprising, he always took responsibility for his actions.

After the trip down memory lane, I also wondered how many years it has been since Nicolás Maduro has had direct contact with the Venezuelan people, going around the country on foot, rain or shine. One recent exception was his visit to Las Tejerías after the mudslides that left 30 dead in 2022. Most of the events we see today all seem heavily choreographed.

Of course the 2018 drone assassination attempt was a life-changing episode that led to redoubled protection efforts. But the truth is that even before that there was little interaction with the people. Five years later we have not seen him surrounded by crowds, hearing 20 people talking to him at once amidst pushing, hugging and the ever-present little notes with requests.

This habit has extended to ministers, governors and mayors as well. Everyone does their utmost to avoid unpredictable spaces, where the people would be free to challenge their representatives, something which used to be very common. We’ll see if this changes for the 2024 presidential campaign

Maybe those of you reading from abroad will think this is minor or unimportant, but Venezuelans will tell you how important this direct contact has been. What made this process “revolutionary” was granting dignity to those who were invisible. Recognize them, recognize their rights and transform them into protagonists in their own history.

The old Atahualpa Yupanqui song goes “Does God watch over the poor? Maybe, maybe not. But he sure has lunch at the boss’ table.” Chávez was not a god, but he had lunch with the poor.

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.