I was visiting Venezuela in April 2002 to write a feature on
eco-tourism, when something unexpected happened. President Hugo
Chavez was deposed in a coup, after mass protests in Caracas.
Following the turmoil on television, from my cabin in the
rainforest near Angel Falls, was a surreal and confusing
experience. On the face of it, the left-wing President seemed to
have resigned after a bloody demonstration over his attempts to
impose party control on the state oil company.
I remember watching emotive footage of housewives banging tin
pans against the chain-link fence of the airport, as a distant
plane took to the skies. "The jackal is fleeing!" they shouted. I
asked my tour guides to help me get to the nearest city, so that I
could compile a report for The Scotsman.
As middle-class business people, the tour guides were mostly
critical of the President: I heard much about his interminable and
often bizarre daily lectures on the state TV, and how his
opposition to US capitalism was slowing down the economy.
Others claimed that he had deliberately armed his "Bolivarian
Circles" - neighbourhood committees, named after the South American
liberator Simon Bolivar, which he had set up on the urging of Fidel
Castro. Now, these gangs were killing unarmed protesters, a
But in Ciudad Bolivar, a city of nearly 300,000 on the Orinoco
River, the poorer people whom I spoke to in workers' cafés looked
incredulous when I told them that the President had fled.
"Don't believe everything you see on the television," said the
waitress. "Chavez has done more than anyone else for the poor of
this country. All this trouble was provoked by the rich. They
wanted Chavez out, and they stage-managed the demonstration."
The Bolivarian Circles were not armed cells, she insisted. "They
are just like unions for the poorest people - the only opportunity
they ever had for better conditions. Now we've got the capitalists
in power again, it's only a matter of time before they sell the
whole country," she said gloomily.
THE capitalists, however, were not in power for long. After two
days, the new regime disintegrated, and the coup was reversed by
loyal palace guards. President Chavez was back in power, on a wave
of popular support. It seemed as if the women banging pans at the
airport perimeter fence were either mistaken, or planted there for
effect by the opposition.
The President had not fled at all - he had not even resigned. He
had been in the palace the whole time, as was later revealed by an
Irish film crew, who happened to have been there, making a
The resulting production, The Revolution Will Not Be
Televised, is a sobering lesson in how powerful interests can
use the media to manipulate public opinion - and a reminder never
to swallow uncritically what you see on the television. I would
recommend it to anyone wanting to pass judgement on this most
flamboyant and controversial of presidents. His legacy is not a
simple one: he was neither a saviour nor a brutal dictator, but
something in between.
ON THE one hand, it is hard to condone his ruthless centralising
of power, his shutting down of private TV stations, his
requisitioning of land and businesses, and his often-questionable
choice of political allies, from Saddam Hussein to the Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"He believed that his enemy's enemy was his friend," tweeted the
socialist songwriter Billy Bragg on Wednesday. "And that is never a
pretty sight, whoever does it."
President Chavez tampered with the constitution in order to
extend his third term of office, and Human Rights Watch has
criticised his "concentration of power and erosion of human-rights
protections, [which] had given the government free rein to
intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticised the
President or thwarted his political agenda".
There is no doubt that he liked to whip up divisions rather than
heal them - constantly casting neo-liberal countries as enemies,
and condoning the seizing of domestic property and land by the poor
from the rich. His Bolivarian revolution was never going to be
easy, he said - and, as a military man, he treated it as war.
But he always said that he was a democrat at heart, and his
election victories - 56 per cent of the vote in 1998, 60 per cent
in 2000, 54 per cent last October - spoke for themselves of the
large popular support he enjoyed from the ordinary people whom he
lifted out of poverty.
The gains in health care, housing, and employment were
impressive. The percentage of households in poverty fell from 55
per cent in 1995, to 26.4 per cent in 2009. Unemployment,
officially at 15 per cent when he was sworn into office, was 7.8
per cent by June 2009. To the poor, he was unequivocally a
Critics say that he could have achieved none of this without
requisitioning the huge oil reserves in Venezuela, which is the
world's 11th-largest crude-oil exporter. But others argue that
poverty-reduction is exactly what a country's wealth should be used
Whatever history decides, President Chavez leaves a changed
political landscape, which includes a formidable bloc of Latin
American countries - including Cuba, Ecuador, and Bolivia - now
offering an alternative to neo-liberalism that is arguably closer
to the upside-down values of Christ.
Nick Thorpe is a freelance travel writer.