The Hugo Chavez Show

Alberto Barrera


He is the co-author of the 2007 biography, Hugo Chávez. This is a translated and edited transcript of an interview conducted in Spanish on Feb. 25, 2008.

“Of all the Chávezes we know, which is the real one? I'm not sure myself. I think this gets harder to answer as time goes by. He is a myth under construction.”

Let's talk about Chávez on TV. When I see Chávez on TV, who am I looking at? Who is that person?

The Chávez on TV is the Chávez that Venezuelans know best. He has a lot of media exposure. In this area, Chávez ... knows what he is doing. He controls the spectacle and empathizes with his audience. Chávez is the first president who grew up during the era of mass television in Venezuela. None of our previous presidents had the exposure to it that he did. They came from the countryside, from the provinces, but he is the first one who has watched TV since childhood. ...

In an interview he gave to a Chilean magazine, Chávez said that when he was a child, all his little friends wanted to be like Superman, but he wanted to be like Simón Bolívar, [1783-1830, the general who liberated much of South America from Spanish rule]. I find that very interesting, not because of what he said but because of his reference to a media icon. He already speaks about his childhood linked to a superhero, a TV character.

I understand that within 10 minutes he can switch from being affectionate to being furious.

Yes, and he has a deep understanding of what entertainment is. He can appear on TV for five hours and remain entertaining, alternating moods from moving to aggressive and back again. He always keeps the tension. It has been said that without Chávez, Venezuelan journalism would have nothing to talk about.

You can get a better idea of what his program is about if you look at how his Sunday program is advertised: "Watch every Sunday Aló Presidente, with President Chávez. There will be news, singing, jokes and entertainment." In other words, it's a real TV show, and he loves it. ... He has his routines that work for him and that he masters. If you look closely, you can see that Chávez has a monitor right next to him, and he watches himself on it. So in a way, he is the director of the program. He can control the cameras. And if he sees someone in the studio audience is getting bored, he'll suddenly call out his or her name. It's the idea of having complete control of the spectacle.

Like the control of the country?

Perhaps they are the same thing, I don't know.

And he is aware of his changes of mood?

Yes. In the interviews we did for the book, interviews with people close to him, one of the things that surprised us was that people told us that Chávez had everything planned out. For us, it was surprising that people as close to him as [Joseé] Vicente Rangel, his former vice president and minister of defense, and [former Deputy Foreign Minister] Alcides Rondón, who knew him as a 20-year-old at the military academy, said that Chávez had everything worked out in advance. Even when he is irritable, when he has a sudden outburst of emotion, even those are planned. Some people say that what Chávez did in New York at the U.N., where he said he smelled sulfur, even this was planned beforehand, like a theater scene. Of course when you see it happening, it seems completely spontaneous. I myself can't say for sure, but this is what people close to him have attested.

... In this sense, Chávez is a great performer, has a fabulous capacity for performance and is very aware of the importance of the media, not least because the media made him. On Feb. 4, 1992, when he tried to overthrow [President] Carlos Andrés Pérez [1974-1979, 1989-1993], Chávez failed militarily but triumphed in the media. And that is what saved him politically, because at this point, with the "Por ahora" ["For now"] speech, the public Chávez is born, not as the result of a military triumph but because he received the magic touch of the ratings. So if anyone understands the importance of the media and knows how to use it, it's Chávez,

How is it that a two-minute speech could be so fascinating for people?

I don't think the "Por ahora" speech is even two minutes long. I think it is shorter. Who knows? But a spell was cast on people, something magical. At first, nobody knew who Hugo Chávez was. But he raised expectations, and the question in people's minds: Who was this man who led the putsch?

Two other important factors: Chávez was a military man, and Venezuela, although it might not be apparent, is a country with a great tradition of caudillos -- political strongmen. Before democracy, which started in 1958, Venezuela lived for a century and a half under military caudillos. And Chávez embodies that tradition. Also, at the time of the coup, everybody had had it with Carlos Andrés Pérez. There was a widespread anti-political sentiment. And then a man appeared, Chávez, who said, "It's my fault," which I think is very important. Someone stood up and actually took responsibility. From then on, through a series of spells cast on the people, a phenomenon was created. A completely unknown man became a public figure, even a sex symbol -- something unheard of, but that is what happened. ...

Who is Chávez?

... I would ask the question differently: Which one of all the Chávezes that we know is the real one? I'm not sure myself. I think this gets harder to answer as time goes by, because he is a myth under construction. Chávez is entering the land of mythology, and he sees himself in a different way. He wants to be a legend, to join the pantheon of Latin American legends like [Marxist revolutionary Ernesto] "El Che" Guevara, like [Cuban President] Fidel [Castro].

But I don't know if he knows who is he. Is he aware of the process he's caught up in? Chávez came out of rural Venezuela. He was a military man with many localized ambitions, and now he is a worldwide phenomenon. He sees his image and knows that he is known around the world. He wants to inherit Fidel's role: to be the great enemy of the "Empire" and the great representative of the Latin American people. Amid all this, it is difficult to know precisely who Hugo Chávez is.

It is said that Chávez has the character of a llanero, [a South American cowboy or plainsman]. Is that so?

Yes, of course. ... They say that llaneros are very talkative and have fantastic imaginations. They love to make up stories and to recount them. ... Their lives are organized around agriculture and stockbreeding, so to fill the space and time they start talking early in the morning and talk and talk for hours on end. Chávez has this rural thing about him, though he's been gradually losing it. But at the beginning, he had a kind of resentment against Caracas, against the capital.

Also, the llaneros have a very particular style of music. It is a music of stories, lengthy tales, where the singers call and respond to one another. He is a man who can speak for literally eight hours straight; I think that is his record in Aló Presidente. Like a llanero, he equates talking with working. So his press conferences ... are virtually endless. The orality of the llanero is deeply rooted in his personality. This is perhaps one of the most important things to know about Chávez.

Do you remember the journalist who asked Chávez a question about the reform: "Why could governors not be re-elected?" Chávez responded for 20 minutes, touching on all sorts of subjects including the Queen of England and the Falklands War, but he never answered the question.

... This verbal obsession is a little strange. One doesn't expect a president to speak so much, right? I think his pedagogical drive, his need to explain things over and over, may derive from his military background, how an officer indoctrinates his subordinates. He wants to talk and keeps talking. He'll digress and then return to his original point of departure without ever answering the question directly.

When the president has a guest on his show, he'll frequently interrupt them. It seems very difficult for Chávez to remain silent, to not talk. I also think that he is very self-referential; that is, Chávez talks a great deal about himself. His references always have a parallel story, that of his own life. And in that sense, Chávez is writing his biography every day. His references are always to his life as cadet or his youth on the plains. This is very useful to him because he is able to present himself as a victim. He reminds people that he is one of them, that he comes from humble origins, which emotionally reinforces the idea that he is not the president but one of us, that he is in this difficult situation.

I find his excessive verbalization surprising because it seems a terribly ineffective strategy for governing the country. I don't know what kind of spell he casts on the Venezuelan people. I don't think they watch Aló Presidente as much as he believes. He claims that the program has high ratings, but it's not true. I'm sure that people must have gotten tired of it. He has been in power for 10 years, and there has to be some wearing off, right? But still, Chávez's ministers and guests have to put up with his rambling on for six hours, six hours of repeating more or less the same things, telling the same jokes which one imagines he must have already told many times before. So the whole thing is a little crazy, exasperating. And you wonder what sense of efficacy a government that spends so much time talking could possibly have. ...

What about his fixation on the "Empire"?

... I think that his political authority has benefited greatly inside and outside of the country from using that rhetoric, because in general, the foreign policy of the United States toward Latin America has not been the best, nor very healthy. In addition, throughout the continent, there is a long tradition of anti-imperialism. And given the U.S.-led war in Iraq, it has worked for him to talk against Bush.

But when he does this, he is criticizing his main commercial partner, and that is very interesting. Chávez and Bush -- or Bush's State Department -- call one another terrible names, but they are not enemies. They can't be. The situation is like a soap opera, like a marriage where the couple cannot get divorced. ...

Paradoxically, the Bolívarian revolution is being financed by Bush and the Empire's dollars while all day long Chávez verbally attacks the Empire. I think that works very well for him in Europe, in Africa and in many parts of Latin America, such as Argentina. But in Venezuela, the economic presence of the United States is very strong, and the relationship with the U.S., even between the American culture and the Venezuelan culture, remains quite firm. So the conflict is not very believable.

In this country, people don't want to fight with the United States, nor with capitalism, but that is what Chávez has bet on. He insists that a conflict will happen eventually, and he knows how to dream for the long term. He knows how to wait. And every day he makes a little gesture which allows him to say: "This week I distributed money to the hospitals. That is socialism."

Invariably, Chávez tries to associate socialism with good things and capitalism with bad things. And I believe that his defeat in the referendum of Dec. 2 was related to the fact that people here don't want a Cuba-style socialist project. Chávez has not read the results very well. What he thinks is that he hasn't explained himself sufficiently and that the people didn't understand. Perhaps what happened was that people did understand, and they understood so well that they voted against Chávez, or simply didn't show up to cast their ballots.

Do you think that Chávez regrets the defeat of Dec. 2 [2007]?

I think so. It's something he didn't expect. Symptomatic of the arrogance that comes with power, he didn't even campaign -- he was traveling. He took for granted that he was going to win. There were polls that predicted that it would be a very close vote or a tie, but Chávez believed he had a 3 million-vote advantage.

... What happened on December was this: Three million people simply could not bring themselves to go to the polls and support Chávez. They didn't vote for the proposals of the opposition. They could have voted against Chávez, but they just didn't show up. ... In essence, the referendum vote represented the Venezuelan people saying: "We don't want arguments with the Empire; we don't want to save the planet; we don't want to fulfill Simón Bolívar's dreams. What we want is housing, health care. We want you to solve our more concrete problems."

That's what forced Chávez to come back to reality. Chávez had a dream -- "Now my objective is to change the world" -- to which the country responded, "No, you are the president of Venezuela, and you have to take care of your own house."

Why are there so many problems in health care and housing in such a rich country?

Well, those problems are long-standing. They are not solely Chávez's responsibility. They are part of Venezuelan history. Social Security was a disaster at the time of the so-called Fourth Republic, the administrations prior to Chávez. But the situation has not improved fundamentally during his presidency.

Chávez's idea for improving things was to create the [Bolívarian] missions. There is a mission called Barrio Adentro ["In the Heart of the Community"], a very important project, which brings doctors, Cuban doctors for the most part, to the poorest districts. But this program has its limits. It is focused on preventative medicine and basic care. Meanwhile, the health care system as a whole continues to suffer from government mismanagement. The hospitals remain in a state of collapse.

So [the ideology] Chavismo and Chávez can have very good intentions, … but they don't know anything about management. Military men are not generally good managers. Their experience of civil organization is nil; they have only managed barracks in preparation for war. Therefore, for nine years, there hasn't been any effective public management of hospitals.

For example, if you go to the Maternidad Concepción Palacios hospital, you'll find there is still a lack of beds -- the same problem they had 10 years ago. In addition, there has been an increase in population with no new construction to meet the demand. These are the classic problems of Latin America, and Chávez hasn't made a difference.

But Chávez is thought of as a president who takes care of the poor.

That is what we Venezuelans don't understand either. It's not so simple as just having good intentions. You can even have money, lots of money, and all the powers and institutions on your side and still not [be] able to solve the problems of a society.

... More money has been given to people directly. That's what the missions are about. If people are in a mission or a social program, they receive the money directly. Therefore, the income has increased, and with it consumption. But that doesn't mean that the structural conditions of poverty in Venezuela have changed. ...

We live in a time of easy money, with oil at $100 a barrel, and there is a feeling of liquidity in the country -- like we've got lots of money. People buy cars, gas is cheap, and they can buy more products. But that doesn't mean that objectively people have stopped being poor.

That sounds very paradoxical, not easy to understand.

Yes, I know. It's very complex. ... The government also changed the statistical parameters for measuring poverty. They said that we could no longer continue to measure poverty with parameters that correspond to capitalism, but that new ones had to be invented, because it makes them look better. Among those new measurements is the level of hope that people have. This is supposed to function as an indicator of quality of life.

So we're looking at a basic contradiction. The government claims, "We lowered poverty by 40 percent," while at the same time what one sees on the street is more or less the same as before. What does it mean to lower poverty? Is it just the fact that people have a higher income? Well, that is true: All Venezuelans receive more money, and the distribution of the oil revenue is also more equitable.


But that doesn't mean Venezuelans have more access to health care or banking. For example, 80 percent of the Venezuelan population lack a bank account and have no access to ATMs. These services don't exist for them. …

Why did mission cooperatives fail?

... Deep inside Chávez's ideas, there is contempt for the creation of wealth, an idea that comes out of the most archaic and old-style left. It's a very Venezuelan phenomenon, part of our condition as [an] oil-producing country. Our society conceives of itself as a rich country where the only thing left to do is to redistribute the wealth we already possess rather than working to produce more wealth. So the government has looked down on private enterprise and foreign investment. They even view the production of wealth as something morally objectionable, and that is what forces our society into a kind of crisis. Everything is fine, but the day oil prices decide to blink, we are all going to kill ourselves, because then everything is over. What are we going to live on?

... The idea that it is not our job to produce wealth has been reinforced. We Venezuelans had this wealth that was taken from us by the Empire, by the rich, by the previous government elites, and Chávez arrived as the avenger who would restore that inheritance to us. We believed that somehow Chávez would give back to each one of us the little piece of sky that was stolen from us. That kind of thinking would create a problem in any society. And in my view, this is directly related to the way the cooperatives have been set up. The cooperatives depend entirely on the state's capacity to give them money. They are not competitive enterprises; they don't enter the market. ...

So if a cooperative fails, it doesn't matter?

No, it doesn't matter. He can finance another one. Some projects have failed already, since this is a society without audits. This is a society that has no idea what is spent, nor where, nor how things are financed. There is no transparency. Nobody knows how successful these cooperatives are or can account for what they do or don't produce. And whatever information is made public, it is only because Chávez himself announces it. ...

... Deep inside there is something very moralistic in his thinking: Chávez can do whatever he wants because he loves the poor and has good intentions for them, which makes whatever he does legitimate. So, in an odd way, everything is allowed. ...

What is Chávez's obsession with Simón Bolívar about?

That has a lot to do with the history of our country. All our heads of state have, in a bigger or smaller [way], used Bolívar politically. We have a very strange relationship with Bolívar. Bolívar is like the father of the motherland whom we betrayed: We expelled Bolívar from the country, and he died in exile, so a kind of religiosity surrounds him, to such a degree that many myths have grown around him. ...

In Chávez's case, I think the obsession with Bolívar is an attempt to connect with something heroic, even messianic. Chávez wants to fulfill the promises that Bolívar was unable to. Bolívar represents a kind of Christ figure, and in this scenario, Chávez would be Bolívar's legitimate son. He feels he is destined to play this role. Chávez said something here in Venezuela and also in London, something that surprised me a lot: "We have been chosen for a task that requires even more commitment than the one given to Bolívar. We must save our planet." This is imposing a rather difficult duty upon the Venezuelan people. I don't want to bear the responsibility of saving everyone, but that is Chávez's idea: that we Venezuelans all dream greatness, that we are men of action, men on horseback. We are the offspring of Bolívar, a people who are destined to change history again. ...

I understand that Chávez launched an investigation to determine how Bolívar died.

Yes. That is part of the revolution, not only to change the present and the future but also the past; to make the past agree with Chávez's own version of history, to shape it to his advantage. In a way, it would be advantageous for Chávez if it was determined that Bolívar was assassinated; not that he died alone and of tuberculosis, but rather as target of a conspiracy. Chávez blames Colombia and the Empire for Bolívar's death, and he's always positioning himself against these big enemies.

It's all a bit crazy. For instance, the investigators are examining a little stone they extracted from Bolívar's body and parts of his diaries that are in the hands of some French doctor. What a waste of time and money. The presidential commission in charge of the investigation is composed mostly of Chávez's Cabinet ministers, which speaks volumes about the priorities of this government. You have to wonder about the analysis behind the decision to have the whole presidential Cabinet play the role of detectives investigating a presumed assassination that happened two centuries ago. ...

There comes a time when one no longer knows where the limits lie. ... Those are instances where power becomes authoritarian and arbitrary, and the common good gets subordinated to the desires of one person. It's inexplicable, right? One has no idea how to make sense of these things. It's clearly absurd.

What are the important moments in Chávez's life?

... I think that since he was little, he had great dreams of becoming a famous man. At first, he wanted to be a baseball player like the legendary pitcher Isaías "Látigo" Chávez. There is an anecdote that surprises me a lot: Látigo dies in [a] plane accident, and when Chávez finds out, he gets very depressed and stops eating for two days. That's what Chávez says. And he also says that after entering the military academy, discovering that he liked it and feeling himself to be in his element, he took the first opportunity he had to visit the cemetery where Látigo was buried. And at the graveside he apologized to his hero, because he now had a different dream. Someone who does that sort of thing at 20 years of age has a clear concept of what he should become and of his destiny. ...

Chávez fills his life with symbolic acts. For example, when he was at the military academy and plotting a coup with his comrades there, he went to the Samán de Güere, a tree where Bolívar swore an oath, and he swore one, too. He imagines himself as part of a grandiose scheme. ...

After leaving prison, his political thinking was shaped by [the Venezuelan politician] Luis Miquilena, who brought him around to the path of democracy. Until then, Chávez, being a purist, still believed in an armed solution and that participating in the elections was not the way. It was Luis Miquilena who convinced him that he should "take advantage of his talent" and run for office. And it worked, because after this, Chávez has done nothing but call for elections. He realized that his most important military triumphs could be won in the elections and in the media.

Chávez spent three years campaigning for the presidency, and I think this was a key to his political development as well. After his election, another defining moment came with the coup of April 2, 2002.

All these are moments when he has been tested, moments when he could have answered as a military man and never did. He never answers the way his enemies expect him to, which is to respond with violence. In both occasions, on Feb. 4, 1992, and on April 11, 2002, Chávez gave up; he gave in. But in giving up, he wins. I find it very interesting that his enemies say that he is something he is not.

What is your interpretation of this? Why has he never resorted to violence?

His verbal style is violent; this comes from his military background of confrontation. I think he is a man who has no civil experience, no experience with negotiation and dialogue. He understands the world in terms of confrontation, and that is the kind of language he uses: The enemy must be annihilated, pulverized, liquidated.

Yet he doesn't do it. ...

No, he doesn't. But there is always a high verbal temperature. He organizes all his people into battalions, into brigades. And the government programs, including the missions, are designated using military terminology. But when it comes to the crunch, he acts more like a politician. ...

Why, given that he staged a coup, was he so traumatized by the one against him in 2002?

The coup of April 1992 involved a broad spectrum of Venezuelan society. Even the church played a very important role. In the 2002 coup against Chávez, I think he was taken aback, because the military with which he identified turned against him. And it was within the military sphere that the crisis got resolved. That is why Gen. [Raúl] Baduel, who has until recently been one of Chávez's main allies, is so important. There were many military men who betrayed Chávez, and others who did not. It was these latter ones -- those who disagreed with [Pedro] Carmona Estanga, [who was named president for two days, April 12 and 13, following the 2002 coup], and the project proposed by the private-sector supporters of the coup -- who stabilized the political situation. But I don't think Chávez expected the coup. He didn't realize that there were different factions within the military. He was very shocked by it.

In the long run, the coup against him ended up working to Chávez's advantage because it lent him more stature. It's the only event that gives weight to a personal history that seems a bit inconsequential. Chávez doesn't have an epic story. I think that pains him very much. After all, he didn't get to power by overthrowing a dictator; he didn't invade anyone. Chávez screams at [George W.] Bush all day hoping he will answer. He needs great enemies because he cannot say, "I'm a revolutionary," and sustain the high verbal temperature unless he is seen as dangerous. How can you demonstrate that you are a subversive threat if nobody invades you, if nobody blockades your country?

Given this lack of a genuine revolutionary history, the coup of 2002 is the only important material he can use. So Chávez constantly repeats, "They tried to overthrow me; they wanted to kill me," when it is not even clear that this was the case.

The fact that Chávez's ascendancy to power is called a revolution in Latin America is very strange. What revolution? He won the elections, and that's it. Revolutions in Latin America have always involved acts of violence, seizure by force, actions more substantial than an electoral triumph.

So that is one of the main differences between Chávez and Castro?

Yes, that's true. Castro does have a biography and a history of struggle, and Chávez doesn't. Chávez would dearly love to be of the same caliber as Castro, "Che" Guevara and [Nicaragua's revolutionary leader Augusto César] Sandino, [1895-1934]. He would like to share their heroic statute, and, until the coup of April 11, he had nothing comparable. ...

Do you believe that Chávez really intends to make wars, or is it all talk?

I would like to believe that this is all talk, but he is arming himself. The problem is that one never knows how wars really start. We Venezuelans have no experience in waging wars. It has been many years since we have experienced one, so it seems very easy to talk about it. But one never knows what will light the fuse. Violence doesn't exist until it happens, until it breaks out, and then it is much more difficult to know how and when ... to stop the fighting.

... The truth is that we have close ties with Russia and Belarus. I think we are getting into trouble without knowing it, or, rather, the government is getting us into trouble. It's very like Chávez to say something and then change his mind, but there comes a time when things slip out of one's control. So to pour gasoline on the fire by institutionalizing the use of violent language I think is very dangerous.

I don't know if you are aware of this, but in some towns in the eastern part of Venezuela, Chávez organizes mock invasions. Sometimes you feel like laughing when you watch these on television. At first it's amusing, until you realize it could easily become something tragic. At San Juan de las Galdonas, in some eastern towns, all the people are ordered to carry logs for defense against these mock invasions, and they have to pretend that disguised Venezuelan soldiers are the invading American Army. We Venezuelans and Caribbean people in general are accustomed to jokes and don't usually take things too seriously, but this I find alarming.

[Jesús] Urdaneta, who was part of the group that staged the 1992 coup with Chávez, believed that Chávez's surrender was treason. What happened?

At the beginning, most of Chávez's comrades were angry with him because they had all achieved their military objectives and he had not. And then Chávez agreed to appear on television and to call for their surrender. I think that is why Urdaneta speaks of treason. Chávez could have surrendered by himself and just said, "They got me," which would have made it possible for the others to decide what to do. ...

There were many accusations and blunders. Even Chávez admits in the book Yo, Chávez by Agustín Blanco Muñoz that he was mistreated in prison by his own comrades and that he was upset because the others were angry at him. He felt that he had failed. I don't really know what happened, nor am I familiar with military logic, but what is clear is that Chávez emerged as a public figure while the rest of the coup supporters ended up defeated. ...

I was taken aback when I heard his "Por ahora" speech. I found it very interesting, because he started off by saying, "Good morning, and greetings to the Venezuelan people," which reveals his talent as a communicator. Immediately one thinks, this man has had no sleep, he has been defeated militarily, and his comrades are still armed and waiting eagerly to hear what he has to say, and he is acting as if he were hosting a talk show. "Good morning to everybody" -- there is something strange here, something peculiar in this man and his way of relating to the media, to history and to his country.

There are many versions of the April coup. ...

Yes, we Venezuelans know several. In fact, Chávez recounts it a number of different ways. Lately he has been saying that his opposition wanted to assassinate him. I'm not so sure, because in one of the recordings, while he is being held captive at the TV station, he is very chummy with the guards and jokes with them. But two years later, he tells a different version, like in a suspense film, where he enters the station and hears the sound of shots behind him, and he stops in his tracks, thinking he is about to be killed. We have to take into account that Venezuelan society is hypnotized by the media and accustomed to dealing with several versions of a story at once. The Venezuelans have lost their sense of a common truth. There is nothing in which it is possible for us all to believe. ...

How will the story of Chávez end?

It's very difficult to know how it will end. First of all, Chávez is still a young man. Second, he doesn't want to give up power. He's admitted it himself. His last statement on the subject was that he would only leave office feet first, meaning dead. That has become his life's project: to stay in power, especially because he believes that he is good and that he knows the best future for Venezuela. It is particularly dangerous for a leader to think he can only do good.

The only end he might accept is that the people no longer want him in power; in other words, that he failed the hopes of the people. It's possible that he could end up being a leader for 49 years like Fidel. But his power would have to be maintained by force, coercing people militarily, putting journalists in jail, killing people, having political prisoners, which doesn't seem to be Chávez's style, at least not for now. ...

... Chávez continues to insist on two things that may turn very problematic for him: arranging his re-election indefinitely and imposing a socialist model on Venezuela. He believes that the people don't know what is good for them, nor does he really respect their opinions. Chávez is a leader who says, "I know where salvation lies." He wanted to explain that to the people, but they didn't understand him. But these are the dynamics of power. As a leader gains more power, he or she loses their capacity to see what's happening. ...

posted november 19, 2008

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