June 11, 2008
CARACAS, Venezuela -- He worked the crowd like a master politician, shaking hands, gazing into women's eyes, glad-handing the American visitors who'd just heard him fulminate against his enemies du jour. He'd been venomous, long-winded, dismissive -- just like the caricature the United States knows so well. And yet here was President Hugo Chávez working a crowd of foreign journalists as if we were his old friends.
Something about me caught his attention. He looked me up and down, taking full measure of this tall, dark-skinned American before him. He squared his shoulders. Then, a sheepish grin spread across his face as if he weren't sure he could get away with the greeting he wanted to give me. But he did it anyway, saying "Black power" and extending his hand for a shake.
It took me aback. Not at all what I expected from the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
"Black power," I said, almost reflexively. I grinned back at the amused president and chuckled softly at this strange and unexpected encounter.
* * *
That's Chávez. You never know which character you're going to get. The lectern-pounding revolutionary? The petro-populist? The crooning romantic?
Chávez was a mystery to me. What was he really all about? How much substance, how much style, how much, even, sheer stupidity? No easy call, I was learning. And even after watching his performance at a three-hour news conference (short by Chávez standards) as part of my visit with a delegation from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he seemed more complicated than even I had presumed.
A country boy whose rough edges were never smoothed, Chávez, 53, is a career army commander who catapulted into Venezuela's power elite. He relishes his outsider status. Though his critics paint him as a buffoon, he is seriously and unapologetically trying to change his country's ruptured society from the bottom up.
Hugo Chávez may be many things -- and the United States believes he's a danger to stability in Latin America. But one thing he is not: a joke.
The label Chávez detests most is "dictator." That is how his critics portray him: He controls all three branches of government; he's amended the constitution to impose his will; he muzzles his critics in the media; he harasses the business establishment.
What's more, they say, he pretends to be a man of the people but is a big spender who tolerates corruption. He lavishes the nation's windfall petrobucks on revolution abroad and patronage at home. He is a sometimes foulmouthed egomaniac on a power trip, and an acknowledged disciple of Fidel Castro of communist Cuba.
Chávez's retort? Get over it! Who's winning the elections? Who has the mandate? To the victor go the spoils.
Chávez first tried to become president in 1992 by masterminding a military coup d'etat. But he blew it. The coup failed. He spent two years in prison, basking at times in his new heroic image. Four years out of jail, he was elected president -- then reelected twice. In 2002, he survived a coup attempt by opponents in the military and in business. Turnabout apparently is fair play in Venezuelan politics. And in 2004, an attempt to recall him came up far short.
Our 19-member delegation spent nine hours in Miraflores, the presidential palace, caught in Chávez's peculiar world -- waiting for him for hours, witnessing his strange news conference performance art, and having a coffee klatch that stretched from a planned 15 minutes to nearly two hours. As I said: The man changes but does not tire, not least when he has a captive audience.
* * *
Reporters and editors snapped to their feet, news cameras rolled and still cameras flashed as Chávez entered the room, wearing a red T-shirt and olive-colored jacket in proper populist-chic fashion.
He took his seat behind a bulky black desk. Simón Bolívar, the Liberator, peered over his shoulder from a large portrait, as if to say, "Don't worry. I got your back."
And Chávez would need it, for he was under siege. Reports that day out of Colombia confirmed the authenticity of computer files linking Chávez to the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The data were seized from a camp of the communist insurgents who are seeking to oust Colombian President Álvaro Uribe.
The files were voluminous: 37,000 written documents, 8,000 e-mail addresses, 210,000 images and more. "No one can ever question whether or not the Colombian government tampered with the seized FARC computers," proclaimedRonald K. Noble, the Interpol secretary general.
No one, that is, except Chávez.
In some other place, with some other president, one might expect officials to counter with their own technical data, expert opinions or even political spin. Chávez left that to his ministers and diplomats.
His style was this: After first complimenting the beautiful eyes of a Spanish reporter, Chávez curled his lips, frowned and scornfully declared that the Interpol news conference, "this show organized by these clowns," did "not deserve a single serious comment." Then he commented ad infinitum in an hour-long counterattack.
There was guilt by association and character assassination. He called Noble, a former U.S. law enforcement official, "disgusting," "immoral," "corrupt," "irresponsible," "shameful" and "Dick Tracy, the super-cop," and a "gringo cop" at that.
There were theater and faux magic. He used a mock card trick (he said he learned it from Castro) to help dramatize how he thought the incriminating data had wound up on the computers. He scribbled a note, stepped into the audience and showed it to a reporter. Then he walked over and planted it on one of his ministers sitting in the front row -- just as he believed the files would have been planted on the computers.
And finally, he threw in a little reasonable doubt. If Interpol didn't get the computers until 10 days after they were seized, who knows what might have happened in the meantime? In the end, Chávez concluded, Interpol could find no evidence that the files had been tampered with. But it also could not prove that they had not.
It was a remarkable defense, certainly unlike anything to be expected at the White House. But then who could imagine an American president taking time at a news conference to sing to a reporter. In what became a presser extraordinaire, he serenaded a blond journalist from Colombia with more than a few bars of the classic ode to her home town, "Mi Cali Bella" ("My Beautiful Cali").
* * *
Burgundy drapes climbed halfway up the white walls to a ceiling at least 20 feet high, which seemed to rest on light blue half-columns protruding from the walls. Triads of flame-shaped bulbs glowed from the ornate sconces trimmed in gold.
We, the American editors, had entered El Despacho Presidencial, the Venezuelan equivalent of the Oval Office, for our impromptu private audience with the president, in a setting of splendor befitting Bolivarian glory. And there was the Liberator, starring down on us yet again, this time full-length and large as life.
Though he'd just finished the "gringo cop" caper and had referred to the United States snidely as "the empire," Chávez lowered his rhetorical guns and changed his tone. Another Chávez was speaking to us. A kinder and gentler Chávez? Certainly not the one who only a couple of years ago addressed the United Nations General Assembly a day after President Bush and said, "The devil came here yesterday, and it smells of sulfur still today."
He asked us to tell the people back home a different story -- that his problem is not with Yanquis in general.
"I beg for a pardon from them. I beg forgiveness if, in my words, I've hurt any feelings back in the States," he said, in a mild, measured voice. "When I speak about the United States, I do not refer to the people, to the citizens. I refer to the elite that is governing the United States. And I am not even referring to all of the elite.
"We have friends among the elite governing the United States. The economic elite, we have friends. We have friends among the cultural elite of the United States. . . . Danny Glover, Kevin Spacey came over here. Sean Penn. Those are my friends, close friends, and they are very critical as well."
Palace staffers served demitasse as Professor Chávez continued the lesson. Even though his presidency has more or less coincided with Bush's, two amigos they are not -- even though Venezuela provides about 12 percent of America's oil and the United States buys half of Venezuela's exports.
"I remember when I met George Bush for the first time," Chávez recalled. "It was in Canada at the Summit of the Americas [in April 2001]. We shook hands, and I said to him with a lot of spontaneity and sincerity -- and I know very little English, but I said this --'I want to be your friend.' "
But it never happened, despite what he describes as attempts at mediation by other countries. The chill is so deep that he said, when asked, that yes, he has "a genuine concern" that the United States might someday invade Venezuela. "We have evidence of plans that exist in this sense."
"I do think that the main reason to invade Iraq was the oil. And the main cause of the threats against us is, again, oil."
Paranoid? Perhaps. But let's face it: Chávez has spent time in the cross hairs of those out to topple him, a taste of his own medicine.
It was in this very room, he told us, that he was held on the night that he was betrayed, the night of the putsch in April 2002 when the infidels tried in vain to force him to resign the presidency.
And that was the night, he recalled, when Castro called and implored him: Chávez, whatever happens, whatever you decide to do, "you cannot die tonight."
Without a doubt, Castro is his Main Man -- the one, he said, who tutored him on how to calculate and utilize Venezuela's cash reserves; who schooled him on using the counterattack as a form of defense, as he'd done earlier in the day in discussing the FARC files; the one who has sent 30,000 Cuban doctors to help Chávez extend health care to Venezuela's plentiful poor, his core constituency.
Castro considers him "a brother and a son," Chávez said. "I truly love him as a father, and it doesn't bother me to say so. An older brother, no. He's a father, and I think he sees me as a son.
"Forgive me if what I am about to say sounds like an exaggeration. But if the world were to elect a president -- a president who could address the problems of the world, a president to lead the world, a president with the powers to do that -- Fidel would be the man."
* * *
With his airport motorcade awaiting him outside the palace, Chávez signed autographs and posed with the visitors for a group picture beneath that gigantic portrait of the Liberator.
"Todo mi amor," all my love, he wrote to a female visitor, the only other African American in the group. Along with his name and the date, he closed the message: "Tu hermano "-- your brother.
That is how he sees himself -- a brother to people of color. Many Americans would call Chávez black, Afro-Latino. He's actually pardo, a Venezuelan mixed-race group with primarily African and Indian roots. I am certain it is the reason he greeted me that day with a "black power" salutation.
It had now been nine hours since my arrival at Miraflores. The room had almost emptied, and Chávez was about to exit. But he had left behind the small blue cross he told us he has always carried since it was thrust into his hand that night of the coup six years ago as he feared imminent death.
"Señor Presidente," I called out to him and pointed to the cross on the coffee table. He retrieved it, and took a moment to show me something else he carries with him -- a tiny blue booklet version of the Venezuelan constitution.
We exchanged smiles, handshakes and farewells. He had the last word. "Adios," he said, pausing slightly, smiling and adding, "Hermano."