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Respecting Hugo Chávez - from afar

Published:Sunday | March 17, 2013 | 12:00 AM
Daniel Thwaites

Daniel Thwaites, Contributor

Despite the overall positive impression I have of Hugo Chávez, I have a lingering suspicion that something wasn't altogether well, and that he was better to look at than live with. Oh, yes, we love his oil, and so his praises have been sung. But 'see mi and come live wid mi is two different sup'm'.

There's no doubt that he was a great charismatic leader. But Chavismo will likely diminish now that its colourful centrepiece and chief exhibit has unfortunately died. I am not certain how exportable it ever was, for it seemed dependent on having extraordinarily large amounts of money to spend. That was itself dependent on Venezuela's great fortune in having more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, and an oil-thirsty neighbour to the north that could helpfully act as both the rich, bad guy and the rich, paying consumer.

His domestic achievements were based on siphoning away some of the money from the hands of the oil rich and purchasing some health and education for his populace. Naturally, the oligarchs went berserk and determined that Chávez was the end of civilisation in Venezuela. In fact, his new progressive approach didn't even throw out the corporations. Ultimately, he was someone they could do business with.

Internationally, Chávez fostered new hemispheric cooperation. So he was kind with Venezuela's wealth. We are, therefore, predisposed to hold him in high regard and the encomiums have poured forth from Caribbean governments and oppositions alike. Who, after all, despises the benefactor who could easily, and without reproach, have ignored your need? Nobody does. (People despise benefactors who they believe 'owe' them something - but that is a different matter).


How do Venezuelans feel about Chávez's open-handedness to foreigners? It seems there was growing frustration about it, and given our reliance on the PetroCaribe arrangement, we have more than enough cause to be jittery. Can we really blame them, though? Many Jamaicans complain bitterly if our Government gives anything to anyone but its own citizens, even to impoverished Haitians who wash ashore here.

If Chávez ended life as a democrat, he wasn't one all the way through. In 1992, he attempted a coup of the then democratically elected government. Depending on your tolerance for such things, you may regard this as a forgivable slip-up, an unpardonable offence, or something in-between. I tend to view coups and coup attempts with alarm. I know, right? It's very bourgeois of me.

Then he really skyrocketed into international stardom when he called George W. Bush "el Diablo", and said he could still smell sulphur at the United Nations podium where Bush had been. He was channelling a common feeling at the time, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at full tilt, and Bush's international unpopularity intense. This broadside I put in the plus column for Chávez, because Bush was behaving as an international menace, and somebody had to let him know.

But when Chávez called Bush a "burro", it wasn't done as a passing cheeky reference, but as a sustained attempt to say the most insulting thing he could think of. There's great footage of it on YouTube. He returns to the insult over and over again.

"Or to say it better, in my bad English .... 'Joo are a dunky, Meester Boosh!' You are a coward! ... Assassin! Genocidist! You're an alcoholic, a drunk!'"

What politician gets to talk like that? It was hilarious.

Chávez's deep dislike for Bush has to be counted for him, but the rhetoric was way beyond acceptable. And so it was for whole classes of people who he came to dislike in Venezuela as well.

And that's a problem. Let's face it. No matter how much a leader may be thinking, "There are five flights a day!" or some such equivalent, a leader ought never to verbalise it. This is more than just a Jamaican consensus. It's a country, not a country club where some members can be more or less disinvited.

Also in the negative column, Comrade Chávez developed the habit of subjecting his people to very long broadcasts during which he might rant against enemies, sing patriotic songs, or sermonise on the benefits of his policies. On one occasion he carried on for nine hours!


Politicians in love with their own voices are a great blight on humanity. I'm even offended by preachers who abuse captive audiences at baptisms and funerals with more than the general exhortation to do good and avoid evil. One target of Chávez's ire was breast augmentation surgery, which is highly popular in Venezuela. This is regrettable.

Add to that Chávez's military attire. There are good reasons for civilian leaders to dress in civilian clothing, not least of which is so that opposition voices don't feel that they might be mowed down by tanks.

There's more. Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's deputy, said, "We have decided to prepare the body of our 'Comandante President,' to embalm it so that it remains open for all time for the people. Just like Ho Chi Minh. Just like Lenin. Just like Mao Zedong." The comparison to mass murderers like Lenin and Mao doesn't inspire any confidence, so again I was left to wonder if there's something I'm missing here.

I suspect it's the cultic aspect of Chavismo that ultimately earns my distrust. For example, Mr Chávez, though he had been ill for some time, was apparently unprepared to go. General Jose Ornella, head of Venezuela's presidential guard, who was there, said, "He couldn't speak but he said it with his lips ... 'I don't want to die. Please don't let me die,' because he loved his country, he sacrificed himself for his country."

I worry about what is going on in the mind of General Ornella here. Undoubtedly, he was grief stricken, but even grief doesn't permit the bizarre leap from hearing "I do not want to die", to interpreting "I do not want to die BECAUSE I love my country." I suspect that Mr Chávez didn't want to die for the very same reason I would rather not die at the moment - not because I love my country, but because I love me.

Chávez embodied the truth behind Lord Jenkins' remark that "great men have strong elements of comicality in them". He certainly did, and it was fun to watch. Still all told, I'm happy Mr Chávez lived, but also happy that I didn't live with him; happy he led, but happy he didn't lead me.

Daniel Thwaites is a partner of the Thwaites Law Firm in Jamaica, and Thwaites, Lundgren & D'Arcy in New York. Email feedback to