Venezuelan soldiers brace against protective fences as supporters wait… (Leo Ramirez / AFP )
The news of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's death this week was striking not because it came as a surprise. Rather it was because his death ignited a bitter debate over what the populist leader's lasting legacy will be at home and abroad.
To his supporters, Chavez was a force for good who made them a priority, who established government programs to combat poverty and illiteracy. But to his critics, he was little more than an old-style Latin American caudillo, or strongman, who mismanaged the country’s vast oil wealth and allowed inflation and crime to spiral out of control.
The current debate about Chavez's legacy reminded me of how fiercely divisive a figure Chavez has been in that country since he was first elected in 1998.
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I realized just how polarized the country was the first and only time I met Chavez, just days before he was briefly ousted from office in a coup in April 2002. I had traveled to Caracas seeking to interview Chavez and found the country at a near standstill. Opposition leaders and workers held marches to protest the president’s handling of the state-run oil company, known as Petroleos of Venezuela.
I was told the best way to guarantee that Chavez would agree to an interview was to attend his weekly call-in show, “Alo President,” or “Hello, Mr. President.” The show had no set hours because it was broadcast on state-run television and would simply air until Chavez decided he was finished talking.
That Sunday, I sat in the audience alongside members of his Cabinet, some military officials and a handful of others. Chavez spoke for hours about opposition leaders he believed were plotting against him. He denounced striking oil workers, and he extolled the many virtues and accomplishments of Simon Bolivar, Latin America’s celebrated independence hero, whom Chavez often invoked in speeches.
When the show ended, I was introduced to Chavez. He shook my hand and cheerfully asked me about my background, and about U.S. news outlets. He agreed we would meet later that week. But that interview never took place.
Instead, in the days to come I would meet Venezuelans who openly spoke of an impending coup against a president they said was a national embarrassment. Protesters filled the streets of Caracas during the day, and at night small vigils were held near the oil company's headquarters. During one of the protests held to demand Chavez’s resignation, a man who said he was retired Gen. Manuel Andara Clavier approached me and announced: “The table is set.” Clavier said he had worked as the inspector general of the armed services until 1994, when he retired. He said he was part of a group of retired military officers who hoped to remove Chavez. He claimed the military would not tolerate the president’s antics much longer.
Two days later, a massive street protest turned bloody and Chavez was arrested by the military. Officials with the armed forces blamed the government for the deaths of civilians and said it would not be tolerated.
In the hours after Chavez’s ouster, I visited Catia, a poor barrio on the outskirts of Caracas. There, some of the ousted president’s supporters wept, while others simply looked stunned and spoke about losing the only leader who had looked out for their welfare. In the end, Chavez’s supporters launched their own counter-coup and restored him to power.
Nearly a week after my first visit to Miraflores, I found myself back at the presidential palace, but this time alongside a throng of international journalists who waited for Chavez to emerge. When he did, he spoke about the future of the country, and about the need for reconciliation.
As I thought of Chavez's death, I couldn't help but think of his call for national reconciliation in the wake of the 2002 coup, and the need for a similar call now that he is gone.