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
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?"
What do you think about the situation?
Dr. Chirinos talks with FRONTLINE/World
reporter Juan Forero.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Dr. Chirinos and FRONTLINE/World
reporter Juan Forero in Chirinos's Caracas clinic.
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.