BEFORE AND AFTER THE ARRIVAL OF CHAVEZ
by Charles Hardy
[March 5 is the anniversary of Hugo Chavez’ death in 2013]
I came to Venezuela in 1985 as a Roman Catholic missionary priest. I left Venezuela many years later as a militant activist. I felt I had a responsibility to become a voice for those in the world who had no voice. Living the first eight years in a pressed-cardboard and tin shack in a barrio on the periphery of Caracas changed me dramatically. To say that change was easy would be a gross understatement. It was more like being hit over the head daily, having to see the world from a totally different perspective.
I was told early on that my work in the barrio was not to convert people to the Catholic religion. The people, whatever their denomination might be, already had a close relation to God. My job was to simply accompany the people in their struggles.
Struggles? Nueva Tacagua, the barrio where I lived, was meant to be temporary housing for people who had lost their homes for one reason or other. Temporary? The shacks had already been there for ten years when I arrived. Ours were in the form of barracks. Others were ship containers. Some were tenement buildings. All were built on unstable land.
Where I lived we had no running water, no sewers. Our toilets? Newspaper, where we would defecate and then throw the paper down the mountainside. Our electricity? We stole it from a power line running through the barrio.
One day as I walked out of my shack a neighbor asked if I was feeling better. I asked her how she knew that I had been sick. Her reply: “We could tell by how you have been breathing during the night.” Their beds were evidently next to mine, separated only by the cardboard wall.
The barrio was isolated from the rest of Caracas, tucked away on a hillside that people could pass without seeing. But the police knew we were there and were ever ready to appear anytime there was a protest.
In February 1989, the army invaded the barrio during the “Caracazo.” We watched as the soldiers shot a man and threw him down the hillside. Together with my neighbors, I faced a tearful soldier pointing his automatic weapon directly at us. My neighbors told me to stay in my shack after the 6 p.m. curfew. “They will kill you if you step out.” I did—to take a dying woman to the hospital. There I was taken to the hospital morgue where I saw the naked bodies of young people strewn on the floor because there was no place else to put them. The next year I slept near a pit in a cemetery where 68 bodies had been dumped in garbage bags.
We were always fighting for better housing, but to be located outside of the barrio. We knew the mountainside wouldn’t support such. It didn’t. In summer, 1993, a landslide wiped out my home together with those of my neighbors.
And, despite our hopes and efforts, we felt the situation would never change.
When I first arrived in the barrio, other missionaries told me that if I had to choose between poverty or joy, that I should choose joy. The people had enough poverty. In 1993, I was losing my sense of joy and so I left Venezuela for a year. My house had been raided by the police. I had seen our catechists arrested for protesting. I was exhausted.
I hope this gives some idea of what life was like in Venezuela before the election of Hugo Chavez. To me, his election was a miracle. It was expected that the two ruling parties, AD and COPEI, would control the political scene forever and that nothing would ever change for the common citizen.
Shortly after his election, Chavez came to Nueva Tacagua and dynamited a building there. He didn’t want people to continue living in such a demeaning environment. But on December 15, 1999, there were massive landslides in Venezuela. The Red Cross estimated that some 50,000 people lost their lives that night. Hundreds of thousands were homeless.
Chavez’s attention turned away from Nueva Tacagua but not from the plight of the people. He felt that the government had an obligation to insure decent housing for all its citizens.
Today, the people who lived in the shacks surrounding mine, have decent homes. They and their children have attended schools and received higher education. Their lives have changed dramatically for the better. And it was because of Hugo Chavez. No leader had ever been so concerned about the ordinary citizens as Chavez was.
In 1994, I married and returned to Venezuela. I continued to live there until 2011 when I returned to the U.S. to seek a national political office. On March 5, 2013, I was driving my car when I heard that Chavez had died. I pulled off the road and cried.
Chavez was a product of the people—people like my neighbors in the barrio. One day I asked a woman on the street if she were a follower of Chavez. She responded, “No. He is following my ideas.” She was not alone. Chavez not only made people feel they had power—they did have power.
The international press often referred to Chavez as a “dictator.” Some, more kindly, saw him as a despotic father dominating the Venezuelans as though they were his children. He was neither. To older citizens he was like their son. To others, he was like their brother. In any case, a beloved member of their family—someone who might pop into your home any day, sit down at the table, and enjoy a meal with you.
I never met Chavez personally, never shook his hand. I could have. I had written a book about Venezuela, Cowboy in Caracas. Friends said he mentioned it on Alo Presidente. I had given presentations around the world about Venezuela: Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, London, and from New York to San Francisco in the United States. I had written hundreds of articles. But I avoided ever being photographed with Chavez. I had seen how the opposition treated “Chavistas” after their coup d’état in 2002. There was a website, “Recognize Them” (Reconocelos) where photos of Chavez supporters were posted. I feared, not so much for myself but, for my family and close friends. And thus I kept my distance from Chavez.
And yet, like most Venezuelans, I felt I knew him and I felt he knew me. I know I wasn’t alone feeling that way.