Before the recent election campaign in Venezuela, the last time that I had been close enough to Hugo Chavez to use a wide angle lens was last February when he left for Cuba to be treated for a recurrence of his cancer. That farewell began as a solemn procession through the streets of Caracas, with Chavez dressed in black, riding in a dark van with open sunroof and an image of Christ on the windshield. His supporters showered him with flowers on the way to the airport, as he left his followers in suspended animation, and his future full of doubt.
This campaign was a re-encounter with him; one that many didn’t believe would happen again. His cancer disappeared from the agenda, and Chavez was back. For his followers it was the difference between night and day, or the idea of a Venezuela without him contrasted with his reappearance in power, where he had been for the last 14 years.
Whenever Chavez appeared the masses screamed wildly. If he were a boxer he would be an undefeated veteran, with many blows against him and without the same youthful agility, but with his own solid punch intact. To his faithful, Chavez remained the synonym of hope.
His motorcades turned into carnivals with salsa, merengue, and ritual drums sounding almost religious, where he received good wishes as well as petitions from the deafening noise and the sea of hands, through which his vehicle navigated each afternoon. At different times he pretended to play the electric guitar, joked on stage, surrounded himself with pop stars to become youthful for a few moments, only to finish by singing his favorite rancheras. One evening in Valencia, Chavez ended one energetic and emotional speech by flinging his microphone several meters to be caught by his aide-de-camp, leaving him triumphant like a bullfighter after the bull’s last pass.
Many women cried upon seeing him and used all their strength to force their way past the guards to reach him. For most it was impossible to do more than make visual contact, but it impressed me how Chavez seemed to make contact with each person as he passed them.
In the oil town of Cabimas on the shores of Lake Maracaibo, a crowd waited hours under a brutal sun in a temperature of 42C (108F). While first aid was given to those who fainted, the rubber soles of a government press officer melted on the pavement. As the motorcade carrying Chavez passed by, there was a group of aides alongside whose task was to pick up the letters that his supporters held out to him.
In Sabaneta, where he was born, we barely reached the motorcade starting point through the thousands blocking the highway in anticipation. Only by climbing onto the roof of a police pickup truck were we able to advance through the masses. Chavez toured Sabaneta with a microphone in his hand singing melancholically, “… I spent my childhood on your streets…” He greeted many people by name, “… I love you auntie… greetings Flor… friend, paint that wall… I was born in that house…” He turned the rally of masses into an intimate encounter.
In Yaritagua, in the heart of Venezuela’s plains, Chavez closed his eyes to sing the National Anthem with thousands of fans. Just minutes later, after a young villager spoke to welcome him to their town, Chavez invited him to sip coffee from a pewter cup right there on stage.
The closing rally in Caracas was under a rain shower of epic proportion, after which Chavez went on to win the October 7th election. I was left with the impression that he had won the support of a new generation of Venezuelans, including some who hadn’t even been born in 1992 when Chavez burst into the public eye with his failed coup attempt.