A staff writer at The New Yorker, he has written two in-depth profiles of President Chávez for the magazine. This is the edited transcript of an interviw conducted on March 3, 2008.
- Some Highlights from this Interview
- The significance of Chávez coming to power
- Why he is a "quintessential Venezuelan"
- What it is like attending Aló Presidente
- Chávez and the FARC
The Castro-Chávez friendship -- how did it begin?
I was coming and going from Cuba in the late '90s when the friendship between Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez blossomed. And I witnessed one of Chávez's most important trips to Havana -- I believe it was in 2000 -- when he was invited to speak at Havana University. And for only the second time that I can recall in all the years I've been going to Cuba, I saw Fidel and his brother Raúl present in the same room, as well as most of the members of the Cuban Politburo. Chávez was treated as an extremely important guest, second only to the pope, who had visited a year or two before.
And for about an hour and a half in this hallowed room of the university, Fidel, Raúl and the other members of the Cuban Politburo listened in rapt attention to Hugo Chávez as he spoke about his plans, his hopes for revolutionary union in the Americas, for a new kind of a relationship between developing countries and the great powers of the world.
He didn't really speak about socialism yet, but it was clear that he was inclined toward an alignment with Fidel Castro's Cuba. We're still talking several years before he declared himself to be a socialist and wanting to build socialism of the 21st century. It was, I think, the first public recognition that these two were like father and son -- absolutely loved one another's company. And nobody had seen Fidel so happy in years, and everyone in Havana remarked on it.
... And Fidel was probably thinking to himself, where was this kid 30 years ago when I needed him? -- oil rich, willing to build a revolution, willing to turn Venezuela into an ally of isolated Cuba. And here we are today, you know, nearly eight, nine years later. It's interesting.
What was the influence of Fidel?
It was clear Chávez looked up to him as a mentor, a kind of philosophical soul mate, someone he truly admired as a hero in an almost boyish way. There's an exuberance about Chávez which is unusual in a head of state. Sometimes one gets the sense that it's a Boy's Own [Paper], and the world still is peopled like boys' storybooks of epic feats of conquest, heroism and tragedy. And, of course, he speaks like that in public. And who but Fidel Castro really comes out of those sorts of pages of a book? Fidel's a mythological creature who's still alive and with us. There's no other head of state like Fidel.
... But Chávez has essentially saved Fidel Castro's revolution on the very eve of his death. I mean, Fidel can go more or less peacefully into the night, knowing that at least for some years more, as long as Chávez is alive, Cuba will be all right.
How has Chávez been influenced by Castro?
At times it's struck me that Chávez is very consciously seeking to emulate the Cuban model in the construction of a revolutionary state. Of course, they've come about in very different ways.
Cuba, of course, came into being as a communist country, as a socialist state, in that transition between the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations during the height of the Cold War. Chávez has come to power through elections and a series of referendums which [have] reaffirmed him and given him sweeping powers in this country. But it didn't come at the point of a gun. This wasn't a bloody revolution, and therefore Chávez's ascendancy did not spawn a wholesale exodus of the old class -- the imperialistic lackeys that he talks so much about, the middle class, the businessmen, the landowners.
This is a very odd construct where he's -- in quite radical terms -- speaking about building a socialist state piggybacked on top of possibly the most Americanized country in Latin America, with an oil economy and a consumer culture and a very consumer-oriented middle class that likes to go to malls to a degree that you don't see elsewhere really in Latin America. So this is a very odd experiment.
But there have been moments when it seems that Chávez has taken a page literally from the Cuban history books in announcing socialism. I mean, Fidel did this just as the American planes bombed Havana in the run-up to the Bay of Pigs invasion, and Chávez announced it at a time when oil prices had increased and he was beginning to experience a true bonanza of oil wealth -- this is going back to about three years ago in 2005 -- which seemed to hold the promise that he would be able to fund this revolutionary trend that he had so clearly been wanting to kick off for several years.
So he announced that it would, after all, be socialist and that together Venezuelans were going to build socialism. Interesting, because until that point, he had not talked about socialism, just as in his own time Fidel had not talked about socialism. Both leaders came to power, one violently, one nonviolently, and accommodated with the ancien régime, and then gradually ratcheted up the rhetoric.
In Fidel's case, the United States sort of played itself out of the game by ratcheting up tension as well and permitting him to force the break in relations. The U.S., on the contrary with Chávez, has chosen to be quiet, to not play the game. So it's almost entirely been a kind of superheated rhetoric coming from here. It seems to be a clear strategy not to repeat the same mistakes as the United States made with Cuba.
Now there's the construction of a single party which is very similar. It even has a similar acronym to the Cuban single party that preceded the Communist Party in the early '60s. There is the notion of the old threat from the "Empire," the United States, which seems to justify for Chávez the need to build a great army and a people's militia which will defend the national sovereignty against imperialist aggression. And all of these are somehow uncannily reminiscent of years past and the story we know of Cuba and the United States.
You know, Hugo Chávez has come on the scene at a time when we're all very cynical about visionary politics. The conceit that most people in the West [have] anyway, that capitalism had been living with since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is that "all that's over." The great 20th-century trend toward totalitarian ideologies, the idea that utopias could be found through revolutionary politics, all seemed to be something from a long-ago age, a time almost of innocence. And, you know, the idea that the collapse of the Soviet Union proved that we were right -- it's really only about living well and living freely and this kind of triumphalist notion that everybody really just wants to be like us.
I think through the '90s, most of the guerrilla movements sort of imploded, and there was this notion that they were all suing for peace because they had to get onboard, too. In fact, most sued for peace because they had no option. The Soviet Union had collapsed; it had sponsored many of them, or its proxies, and the world situation changed.
But the fact of the matter is that through the '90s, the United States promoted sweeping liberal economic reforms in Latin America which really did not create a huge trickle-down effect. It did not create a United States of South America. Unfortunately, too many of the new democratic leaders in the region proved to be thieves, simple thieves, and they participated in the wholesale sacking of their countries and economies. And we can go from one country to the other, and I can name either a president or a vice president that is either a fugitive from his own country, doing time, or if not the president, then the chancellor of the exchequer, the vice president and any other number of leading officials of those fledgling democracies that were lauded by the United States during the '90s.
So Chávez comes on the scene in a country which is arguably a failed state, where liberal economic policies had been experimented with for over half a century -- in fact before all of the others -- and failed perhaps more miserably than anywhere else. Caracas is the capital. It's a city where there are nice homes like the one we're sitting in, and then, if we had a view, we would look out to hilltops covered with shacks where people live miserably. The democratic majority in Venezuela lives in shacks, and therefore the populist message and revolutionary message of Hugo Chávez holds a special kind of appeal to those people, or did.
So along comes Chávez with his almost 19th-century notions of heroism and martyrdom and nationalism and sovereignty -- you know, this kind of hyperbole that, with few exceptions, is gone from public life in Europe or the United States. And Chávez gets in front of the television screen and tells everyone that they can be heroes again. This has great appeal.
Maybe he should look down right there at his feet and see what's around him. ...
True. It's shocking to come into Caracas and nearly a decade on see that most of what Hugo Chávez was railing in anger about being left with -- a failed society, misery, insecurity, unequal distribution of wealth -- is still here.
Despite these surely thousands of hours of speeches, and many billions of dollars of oil wealth pumped into the economy, we don't see huge changes. We see, in fact, that most of Hugo Chávez's revolutionary programs, his inventions to ameliorate and alleviate the social ills at home, simply have not worked. There's a kind of a crisis of administration and implementation in this country. And I've often felt that he seems to be surrounded by very mediocre people and that the middle ranks, the management, just isn't there. There is not the expertise, and there is not the ethical commitment to the reforms he talks about.
I mean, in a way, Hugo Chávez has really emulated Fidel by not entirely attending to his house while going out and trying to save the world, because that's what Fidel did. ... The Cubans never had enough money; the Venezuelans have always had too much. When I said earlier that I felt that [Venezuela is] the most Americanized of Latin American countries, I also meant that they are extremely comfortable in the way they view themselves. They have high expectations of material comfort, and to a certain degree they're politically apathetic.
So Chávez, in that sense, can be seen as something of a Don Quixote. I mean, it could be that he is a doomed figure. The plus side so far is that it hasn't come to violence, which is unusual. He is an anomalous figure.
Chávez is easily caricatured because he can be funny. He can seem buffoonish on his Aló Presidentes. He sings, gets involved in wordplay, goes on too long. He does all of these things in public. He's probably the world's first virtual president in the age of the communication revolution. And he doesn't seem to know when to stop.
While I have been in Venezuela, I watched President Chávez send military troops to the Colombian border. He did so on live television, talking directly to his defense minister, who was sitting in front of him, who stood up, and he ordered him to send I think it was 10 divisions to the border, and jets and tanks. And the general nodded his head and said yes, and one got the impression that he hadn't been told that before.
This is extraordinary. There's no other head of state who's been as public as Hugo Chávez, so it's quite unprecedented. The opposition calls him a Hitler; I think [former U.S. Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld famously did once. I just called him a kind of Don Quixote. We think he is analogous to Fidel, but he's not Fidel Castro; at least not yet he hasn't pulled it off. But he's very much his own man.
And he has to be seen as somehow a quintessential Venezuelan. A lot of these characteristics and personality traits that make him seem funny or shocking to the rest of the world are very Venezuelan traits. But it's the Venezuelan Creole wit which doesn't translate. When he joked about Bush being the devil and smelling sulfur at the podium in the U.N., it was shocking, a major faux pas in diplomatic terms. But it was just wordplay, Chávez riffing on the moment. He probably hadn't thought about it, and it occurred to him right then and there, and that's what he does on the television screen virtually every day in Venezuela at home.
Well, [there are now] over 300 Aló Presidentes. It's a Sunday show which he devised as his sort of meeting with the people. It's a televised thing and is done in a different part of Venezuela every week with a special crew that go with him, and it's become much more sophisticated in the way it's mobilized every week over the years.
I went to one recently where we were on the former ExxonMobil oil installations in the eastern part of the country, in the upper Orinoco River area. And this was sort of liberated territory, for he was at the time involved in an international dispute with ExxonMobil -- you know, great imperialist oil company. We went by jet to the provincial capital, then on army helicopters.
There were many people waiting for us wearing red shirts. A marquee had been set up with a planked floor. A desk, a wooden desk, is placed there with his pencil holder and his notepads and the books that he wants to discuss. There's a little portable air conditioner just at the desk level so you don't really see it that I think keeps him cool.
And there's satellite breaks, where they'll go on remotes to other parts of the country and he'll speak to people there by satellite -- oil engineers on an oil rig or people who have expropriated a farm here or whatever it is.
During those breaks, the aides who are hovering around the edges of the stage come rushing up, give him coffee, powder his face, wipe sweat off, whatever he needs. Now, these shows go on for four or five, six hours, and they're live, and there's a ready-made audience who goes with him. Usually it's many of his ministers, or certainly the ones who are involved that week in whatever he's discussing, whether it's land reform or oil or the military or whatever it is. There are local dignitaries and local people, local cadres. Sometimes there's international guests. I happened to be at one when the Belarussian secretary of state was there and some of his people. And it went on and on and on and on.
And in the course of that "Hello Presidente," his eye roves around, he's a consummate showman. He absolutely transforms when the cameras are on. He has a structure; it works. He has a number of topics he wants to cover, but he will also riff at the moment. And that makes it entertaining. And just when your energies begin to flag -- it's hard for anybody to sit anywhere for that long -- he'll say something that's funny, or he'll call upon you, so you have to keep your wits about you.
So most of the audience knows this, and especially his officials are like Bambi in the headlight -- you know, they're frozen, terrified that he's about to call on them. And very often, yes, they clap, and they also quail, because he's given to ticking off his ministers in public.
Some of them are very embarrassed. But in his mind, the Alo Presidente, it's sort of -- he's the father of the Venezuelan family, and it's his fireside chat.
And everybody sort of knows his routines. Many Venezuelans, including people who don't like him, have it on because it's the great national touchstone. I don't think he really expects the entire nation to be sitting there for six hours. He's aware that he goes on too long, but it doesn't really matter, because 40 minutes of it is really destined for this part of the population, and 20 minutes is on another part.
And then, of course, he just has fun. He likes doing it. He comes into his own when he's in front of a camera. I think he thinks of it as this national fireside chat where he's speaking to the nation and his ministers shouldn't get embarrassed if he ticks them off in public because they're all friends anyway. There's no real hard feelings, because in the end he'll make a joke about it or expect them to do better next time. And he'll single out some journalist he knows by name about an article which he didn't like, or maybe one he did like, and he'll discuss it at length as if you and I were sitting here talking about it.
He obeys none of the normal ground rules. He makes it up as he goes along, which is why he is so shocking to civil liberties unions or press-rights watchdog groups. The fact of the matter is, though, that it still hasn't been violent. Where he can be criticized is when his words are taken out of context or understood and interpreted by militants, who then go and have angry demonstrations or in some cases try to pull off violence against opposition people or so on.
So it's created a kind of hothouse atmosphere where people who don't like Chávez -- certainly those in public life and in the media feel like they're walking on a tightrope, exposed and vulnerable. There is in Chávez a recognition of this. He likes that situation. He is not a democrat as we understand democracy in the parliamentary democracies of Western Europe.
Is he a democrat at all?
There is something of the military authoritarian in him. Is he a democrat at all? Chávez's supporters like to talk about participatory democracy, which to people coming from United States or Great Britain looks like the rule of the mob. It means you have a kind of cheering section or a mob who applauds your every word and raises their hands and that's how you legislate.
And then you don't follow through. ...
And then you don't follow through. I think the most troubling aspect of Chávez's rule in its 10th year is the fact that he has not followed through. Now, the curious thing is he seems aware of it, and there's been some self-criticism. ... I mean, on almost every point that I would raise with him, whether it was the garbage in the streets or the lack of public security or the huge crime rate, the worrisome corruption within the police ranks that everyone talks about -- nobody knows whether if a policeman stops someone whether they're going to be robbed or even murdered or helped by that policeman -- it's a really serious situation, lots of symptoms of social collapse. The scarcity of basic foodstuffs now -- milk, sugar -- people now have queues to get these things.
What does he do?
Well, this is the thing. If one made a list of the things that you would want to challenge President Chávez on, one sees that he's actually challenged if not himself, the people around him, and has asked them for implementation.
Is it going to work?
I don't know. The problems seem so vast and so many. It seems worrisome that the same administration [that] allowed this situation to get to what it is ... could rectify [the situation] to the point that they could improve it to a greater number of people's satisfaction. But I suppose it's possible in some ways.
He is a political master who has seemed to have failed recently, but who always in the past has been able to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Now, if he's able to bring down the crime rates, if he's able to sort out the food shortages, avoids war with Colombia, it's possible he will be able to not only stay in power but once again begin to increase it. But there's almost no way to call the future of Hugo Chávez and his revolution.
I've always felt that it probably wouldn't end well because of the way he perceives his role in the world and in life. I think he does imagine himself to reviving Simón Bolívar's dream, the Bolivarian epic. And it's difficult to see him sort of going into retirement or something at the age of 54 or 55 or 56. If anything, all of his actions as well as his words have steadily reaffirmed my first perceptions of him, when I got to know him personally, finally, back in 2001, which was that he was determined to go all the way with everything he talks about, which was to create a revolutionary Bolivarian Latin America.
Even if it kills Venezuela.
Even if it kills him.
The FARC describe their movement as Bolivarian. They're left of center. They straddle the Venezuelan-Colombian frontier. President [Álvaro] Uribe of Colombia represents the old and longstanding order in Colombia, the landowning class tithed to the U.S. vision of things in the hemisphere. It goes without saying that Hugo Chávez's sympathies and beliefs lie not only more with the FARC, but with the FARC over those of the government of Colombia.
And the thing about a guerrilla movement, a war that's unresolved like that, I think the new tension that's built up over the FARC, between Colombia and Venezuela, has probably brought everyone back to the understanding that you don't leave these places in a mess forever, for decades and decades. I mean, Colombia did not look after its borders. The U.S. -- Colombia's great sponsor -- has not really paid attention to the longest lasting Marxist, and only Marxist, insurgency in the Western Hemisphere, and in a country where 80 percent of U.S. foreign aid in the region goes to Colombia. It just let this situation hemorrhage and hemorrhage and hemorrhage. I'm talking about the existence of an armed group in control of an illegal economy. It taxes whatever is in the territory under its control, which includes coca, the drug trade. So it's like a clandestine state, which potentially not only undermines part of Colombia but spreads into parts of Venezuela and Ecuador.
Now, to someone who is ideologically in tune with that movement, the FARC represent an asset to be used to further revolutionary ambitions. And to the U.S. and Colombia, or the established states who don't want to see a Bolivarian federation of states in Latin America, the FARC represents its Achilles' heel.
I think that whatever led to President Chávez using the hostage negotiations as his way in has managed to make the FARC once again a movement to be reckoned with and a problem to be dealt with.
Colombia, by and large, was fighting that war, but most Colombians, or for that matter people in the hemisphere, ignored it. It had gone on for so long that it was no longer seen as threatening or destabilizing. It was a kind of insoluble permanent problem, and everybody was living with it that way. To his credit or discredit, President Chávez has consciously tried to remind everybody that in fact, it's a problem. And of course his point of view is that it's a problem because these are the historic survivors of Colombia's murdered history. These are the people whose voices have never been allowed to belong legally and never been able to participate in the Colombian process.
So he's finished with Venezuela and now pays attention to Colombia's problems?
Grand Colombia's problems -- it's not Colombia; it's their comrades in this revolutionary epic. The political frontiers don't matter if you have a vision like Hugo Chávez's.