Frontline World

VENEZUELA - A Nation On Edge, June 2003

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Synopsis of "A Nation On Edge"

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Dateline Caracas

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Interview With the President's Psychiatrist

Economy, Government, Society and Culture

Anti-Chavez and Pro-Chavez groups, Relations With U.S., Oil, Media




A Diagnosis From the President’s Shrink

Dr. Edmundo Chirinos

Dr. Edmundo Chirinos

When the FRONTLINE/World crew turned up in the kitschy offices of Dr. Edmundo Chirinos, nobody knew for sure how much he would say about his most famous patient. After all, Chirinos is not only one of Venezuela's most renowned psychiatrists, he's also been Hugo Chavez's friend and counselor since 1992. The doctor's psychiatric clinic is in a villa in the old middle-class neighborhood of La Floresta, not far from Mount Avila, which overlooks Caracas. His office looks more like a tiki lounge than a doctor's office -- with an artificial waterfall, plants everywhere and worn-out leather couches. Chirinos studied in Germany, France and England and is a former dean of the Central University of Venezuela. He also represented the Communist Party in Venezuela's 1988 presidential election. These days, he told FRONTLINE/World, he finds himself treating an increasing number of patients suffering from severe stress, which he ascribes to the political uncertainty in Venezuela. What follows is an edited transcript of the psychiatrist's interview.

Doctor, are people suffering from anxiety because of the political situation?

There's a general state of schizophrenic reactions, intense depressions and, above all, a collective neurosis. There's a generalized state of anxiety in almost all the population in the country -- particularly in the middle class.

What kinds of problems exactly?

The aggravation and generalization of diseases that have a genetic origin, such as schizophrenia or manic-depressive psychosis, is noticeable. They have been augmented. But above all is a state of anxiety, of collective neurosis.

The middle class sees the future with great uncertainty, and anxiety over losing their jobs, and anguish about the general direction of the country. When people come here, they ask about the future: "Doctor, what do you think will happen?"

Dr. Chirinos talks with Juan Forero

Dr. Chirinos talks with FRONTLINE/World reporter Juan Forero.
What do you think about the situation?

It's extremely grave. You've seen the ideological radicalization of the government and the presence in the country of noted leftist leaders from all over the world. This increases the fear in the middle class that Venezuela will become a Communist-type regime. One must add that the mass communication media that are present -- which, in a way, are not doing journalism but rather politics -- have used their networks as an instrument of creating fear that aggravates the sense of conflict for much of the population. The networks that control 90 percent of the audience are sending extremely worrying messages about the future of Venezuela and exaggerating in many cases the action of the government.

How do the depression and anxiety manifest themselves?

Insomnia. Severe sleep troubles. Anxiety to the point of suffering panic attacks. A state of sadness, confusion, defeatism, desolation. We've had to hospitalize many patients. The number of patients has doubled. I cannot treat all of them.

You've also been the president's doctor. What are his troubles? The opposition calls him crazy. Is he?

Not at all. I've always said that all presidents all over the world have some type of personality disorder. Power deforms he who exerts it or aspires to it. Chavez doesn't have any particular trait of psychiatric abnormality. He's a normal man, with plenty of fortitude to deal with the problems the country faces. Sometimes he's impulsive. You see that especially on television.

You say fortitude?

Yes. The physical and mental capacity to spend hours and hours working, facing the most diverse problems with utmost serenity. His impulses are sometimes noticeable in his speeches, and they'll be the source of gossip for the week. His show, Alo Presidente, which airs on Sundays, is the week's material for all journalists in this country. Everybody waits for Sundays to see what journalists are going to talk about. I wonder what they'll do when Chavez disappears.

What do you think about the president's long speeches?

He's very extroverted, and he has an inexhaustible capacity for talking. I've never seen him lose his voice, even after hours of talking without stop. He was always like that, and power has accentuated this tendency.

Is the president narcissistic?

There's not a president who is not narcissistic. Some presidents are more discreet, in other countries. Even for Latin America, he's an exceptional type, and with an important quota of narcissism indeed. He also has traits of authoritarianism, no doubt about it.

But he also has a great capacity for jokes, for aggression, even to laugh at himself, which means he has great charisma, supported by a healthy narcissism -- up to a point. It is not pathological. It's common in many political leaders. In Chavez's case, there's a fiery temperament, ardent, passionate.

Dr. Chirinos and Forero in the clinic

Dr. Chirinos and FRONTLINE/World reporter Juan Forero in Chirinos's Caracas clinic.
He moves his hands, he can sing, he can recite poems -- he's a very interesting social communicator. He can be quiet, too, a very calm human being. When he changes from one state to another, people can be quite surprised. He's a charismatic man.

How did Chavez first become your patient?

When he was imprisoned in Yare, he didn't know many people in the civilian world. He called some of us who had a certain prestige or were known by people. That's how he called the current vice president, also his mentor, Luis Miquelena, and many others that have come into his government. He called me because I had been a presidential candidate and had political experience; second, he had family problems, and required my services as psychiatric counselor. He was not perturbed; he only had common problems anybody could have had with wives or children. That's how I became his friend and counselor.

Some people consider Chavez as a Hitler and others see him as a god. Why is that?

There are two reasons. His personality -- his aggressive, sometimes violent character -- generates quick anger in the opposition. Even hatred, even wrath. The second reason is ideological. Every day he defines himself more as a man of the left. And the immense mass of our middle class is linked with the right, with traditional Venezuelan politics, distinguished by rightist sentiments. This combination, exaggerated by the media, has created a situation where most people either love him or hate him and there's no one in the middle. That's very dangerous.

Do you think Chavez could become a dictator?

No government in the world has tolerated more abuse from the media. They ridicule him, they portray him in cartoons, they turn him into a devil -- and the matrix of opinion is formed by public opinion. That doesn't mean that the development of the Venezuelan political scenario won't lead Chavez to take certain measures restricting freedom of speech. After all, he's had a coup d'Čtat aimed at him, on April 11, and three months of national strike. But even so, there's total freedom of expression, and he's not that aggressive. So no, he doesn't have the traits of a dictator. How can the media say he's a tyrant? If it were so, they'd be in prison.

But he has taken control of many institutions. Isn't that an example of authoritarian methods?

Let's not forget that he's in power thanks to two movements -- popular force and a military sector, centered in the army. In these conditions, either may be tempted to establish a more authoritarian regime. The danger exists. But the Venezuelan opposition doesn't seem to be doing anything in order to avoid this. Let's not forget that our constitution -- which I helped write -- establishes that any officeholder, including mayors and presidents, can be recalled. That's not typical of a tyrant. That's typical of a profoundly democratic man.

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Translation by Angel Gonzales.