The Hugo Chavez Show

Rafael Simon Jimenez


He was vice president of Venezuela's Parliament until he broke with Chávez. Like Chávez, he grew up in the rural state of Barinas and knew the Chávez family well. This is a translated and edited transcript of an interview conducted in Spanish on March 4, 2008.

“Chávez is the classic llanero in the way he talks, combines truths with half-truths. It’s a little like the genre made popular by García Márquez: magical realism or fabled history.”

Tell us about life with Chávez in Barinas.

I had the opportunity to meet Chávez when he was around 13 years old. There was only one public school in the whole state of Barinas, which is a vast state of 22,000 square miles. That meant that any father who wanted his son to get ahead had to send him to Barinas, the capital city. The Chávezes, who are a large family, had elder sons, Adán and Hugo. Adán is my age. I met him first, in 1953, when I started my studies at Barinas, at O'Leary High School; we called it O'Leary, but its full name is Daniel Florencio O'Leary, named after Simón Bolívar's Irish aide-de-camp. I met Adán, and the following year, I met Hugo.

Barinas was a very rural town, very quiet, but Sabaneta, the town where the Chávezes were born, was even more so. For the people of Sabaneta, Barinas seemed a metropolis. They could see things there they had never seen in their entire lives.

Let's not forget that it was 1964 and 1965 when Adán and Hugo entered O'Leary. They were very turbulent years in Venezuela, just like in the rest of Latin America and the rest of the world. The Vietnam War, the Paris [workers' strike] of May 1968, the ideology of liberation -- all these circumstances prompted the youth to become active and politically involved.

During the five years I was there, I exercised my leadership among the young men of my generation. I got involved in politics at a very early age, so by the time I got into high school, I was ready to become leader of the left-wing political movements and, of course, president of the Student Center.

It was at O'Leary that my friendship with the Chávezes started, although our families already knew each other. My mother is and has been a schoolteacher all her life. She was Hugo Chávez's father's teacher in an adult education program.

And Chávez, was he very involved in politics?

No. He liked anything related to extracurricular activities such as theater and music, but mostly sports, baseball in particular -- the ultimate sport in Venezuela. He has said it many times: He dreamed of playing in the big leagues, in American baseball. All of us had a sports idol we wanted to emulate. At that time there was a great Venezuelan left-handed pitcher who died very young, in the prime of his life, in a plane accident. His name was Isaías "Látigo" Chávez. Well, Hugo Chávez wanted to get into the big leagues and to be like Látigo Chávez. ...

He was not too involved in politics, except for demonstrations and protests, which happened frequently. Then he would participate as your average Joe, not in a position of leadership.

Chávez is a llanero, and you are, too. What is it to be a llanero? How much of a llanero is he?

The llanero is a man from the plains, similar to the Argentinean cowboy in the Pampas. The llanero is a man on a horse who lives on a horse. Some people even believe that he is a winged being or Pegasus. The plains are the center of all the legends and Venezuelan myths.

The llanero likes to create mythologies. There are many famous ones in Venezuelan folklore; for example, ... Alberto [Arvelo] Torrealba, a great Venezuelan poet who composed the famous "Florentino and the Devil" folk song, which Chávez can recite by heart. It's an imaginary fight between the devil and Florentino, an imaginary character. Torrealba is able to express how the llanero sees life: He believes in stories, mythologies. ...

When we were little, they would use all those stories from the plains to scare us, stories such as "La Sayona," "La Llorona," "El Silbón." Chávez has this characteristic in him. It's in the way he carries himself. I knew Chávez before he was president, and he was a talkative, chatty man who loved to throw sayings into a conversation. He liked all the musical instruments from the plains and to sing and recite corridos, which are popular folk songs from the plains. He was very good at it.

Andrés Eloy Blanco, the greatest poet Venezuela has produced, dedicated a corrido about the cavalry to his great-grandfather Maisanta, [the Venezuelan rebel, born Pedro Pérez Delgado]. This corrido is about 50 stanzas long, and I'm telling you, Chávez knew it by heart. He likes very much the instruments from the plains: the cuatro, the harp and the maracas.

When he was older and in the military, he rose to the rank of chief of Orza's military camp. Orza is a typical plains town in Arauca, between Venezuela and Colombia, and he was stationed there for three years. Well, Chávez became the center of life in town because he was the one who organized the parties and the dances, because he was a typical man from the plains. ... Chávez is the classic llanero in the way he talks, how he combines truths with half-truths. It's a little like the genre made popular by [Colombian novelist Gabriel] García Márquez, magical realism or fabled history.

So even now, when people watch Aló Presidente, they are seeing the llanero part of Chávez. ...

Yes, one sees the llanero especially in the last programs recorded in Orza, Barinas. In the last one he even got on a horse. He has introduced other elements into his personality, but I believe he is still the typical llanero, with his chattering, his love of throwing in proverbs, of speaking incessantly. He is capable of speaking for five or six hours. Those are the elements of the plains where real stories are combined with fables, myths with truths. This is a man very much influenced by the llanero mentality.

In addition, in rural Venezuela, the towns on the plains, there was no electricity, so people lived in darkness after 6:00, which favored the existence of all those legends, specters, the walking dead, men without heads -- a whole rural mythology. The llanero of today is not the llanero of 40 years ago because progress has arrived; the cultural climate has changed. But I continue to see in Chávez the typical features of the llanero.

Later on, you worked with Chávez, right?

Yes, in his administration as vice minister of the interior and justice, when Luis Miquilena was the minister, and later on as vice president of the National Assembly. I have always said that one should not get too close to Chávez, not too close so you don't get tangled up in the conflicts of his personality, nor so far away that he cannot find you at the key moment.

I was relatively close to him when I held those posts and also during his campaign in 1998, and again had the opportunity to observe the complexity of his personality. He is a man who can make a very humane gesture, and then he can surprise you with a rude comment or with a harsh look. He is a very complex person. It is difficult to have a relationship with him because he is so unpredictable. One never knows what he is going to come up with. ...

When did you [begin to have differences]?

Well, when our differences started to surface, it was evident, and I think Chávez knew it. We had known each other for many years. ... I was the leader of MAS [Movement Toward Socialism], one of the parties which had supported him. MAS is a Social Democratic party that has evolved a lot in its thinking, which values freedom, plurality, differences of opinion, respect for people -- in short, which believes in socialism, freedom and democracy.

Chávez and I agreed that it was necessary to change the government and Venezuelan society and Venezuelan institutions, but when we got into power, our points of views on the future of Venezuela started to clash. We had different visions. For a while we tried to emphasize our similarities, to work on the things that united us above the disagreements, but we arrived at a point where it became difficult. ...

Chávez started to take steps, which, from my point of view, did not belong in the domain of democracy. For example, he pushed through the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, with the objective of limiting the free expression of the media. He also took steps to modify the Law of the Supreme Court, with the purpose of controlling the judicial branch.

The differences in our points of view became more pronounced until things got to the breaking point, precisely after the coup of April 11, 2002. Chávez came back three days later with a crucifix in his hand and told the Venezuelan people that he was going to change, to correct himself. He asked for forgiveness, called for a national dialogue, and I believed his promises were sincere. And as vice president of the National Assembly -- a very important spokesperson -- I started to promote political measures to create more openness, to start a dialogue, to reconcile with the Venezuelan people.

One day he called me to Miraflores Palace, and we had what you would call an argument. It was the defining moment in our relationship. He simply said: "Look, Rafael Simón, we see things differently. We have two different points of view, and I'm not going to change. I'm absolutely sure that what I have been doing is what is necessary, and in fact we need to go farther in that direction. We need to take a tougher line, to be more aggressive with the changes, more forceful -- and I know you don't agree."

We had a very intense argument, because I expressed my dissatisfaction and my very different way of looking at things. At the end, we parted ways amicably. We realized that we had different ideas. But even though nowadays I'm an important leader of the Venezuelan opposition, which has an obsessive and inflexible attitude toward Chávez which I don't share, I must say that our breakup was very civilized and that Chávez wasn't aggressive, nor did he try to discredit me. He just realized that after many years of knowing one another, our experiences had taught us to see things differently.

Was that the end of your friendship?

Well, it was more like a distancing, because Chávez sees things in black and white. I have been a politician for many years. We Venezuelans agreed and disagreed without it affecting our friendships or other relationships. Now Chávez has created a barrier among Venezuelans. He has created divisions, hate, confrontations. We didn't reach a personal impasse, but our relationship suffered.

It has been years since I have had a relationship of any kind with him. But he has never fired me, attacked me or discredited me, as he has done to others. And I would be a liar if I claimed that they -- the Chavistas, and especially he -- have ever retaliated against me. I think he still respects the friendship we once had, and especially he respects something that he knows: the fact that I had socialist ideas, ideas about justice way before he did. ... I think that's why he respects me.

Do you know how people from Barinas voted in the December referendum?

It was almost 50/50 -- 54 percent in favor and 46 percent against the reform.

In Barinas?

In Barinas. A virtual tie, right, which is quite unusual, because even though Chávez lost the national referendum, in all the plains states other than Barinas, he won by a big margin: in Portuguesa by 70 percent; in Cojedes, 70 percent; in Guárico, 70 percent; Apure, 70 percent, etc. But in his home state, the margin was very small.

... What happened afterward was even more important: The people looted. That the Chavista people, the people from his hometown, Sabaneta, where he won with 80 percent of the votes -- those same people have risen up against Chávez twice. Once the people looted the Mercal, which is the government food distribution center, after the government punished some workers who had been defrauding the sugar mill.

Then what happened at Arismendi, a remote region of Barinas, people prevented the governor of Barinas, Chávez's father, [Hugo de los Reyes Chávez], from leaving in his military helicopter because he had not met their demand. In other words, in Barinas, which should be the region where Chávez inspires the most trust and the strongest support, we are starting to see a breakdown of support. ...

And what about the issue of nepotism?

Yes, Chávez has shown unusual weakness in the control of his family. His father is governor of Barinas. His brother Argenis is secretary of state. His third brother, Aníbal, is mayor of Sabaneta, Chávez's hometown. His fourth brother, "Nacho" [Narciso], is as powerful as the actual mayor in our municipality and aspires to be the mayor of Bolívar Municipality. His fifth brother, [Adelis], who, by the way, was never in politics because he worked in a bank, is now the president of a very important soccer competition, the American Cup. And there are rumors that he aspires to be mayor of the capital of Barinas.

In addition, there are his other relations; for example, Ramón Frías, the mayor of Arismendi, relative of Mrs. Elena de Chávez, Chávez's mother. Also, Asdrúbal Chávez, Chávez's cousin, holds one of the most important positions at PDVSA [Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.], Venezuela's oil company. He is a board member and director of marketing.

We are faced not only with nepotism, but a traditional way of life being changed. Barinas is a place where everybody knows everybody else. I have known Chávez's father for at least 40 years. He was a very hardworking person -- I have always said it -- a man who started as a rural teacher, making 600 bolivars a month [$150], and with that money he sent his five children to college, and all of them became professionals. He was obviously a very hardworking man.

Well, his lifestyle has changed dramatically. I guess the people who noticed it the most are his neighbors from Rodríguez Domingo, the development where the Chávezes were born and raised. The people there were of very modest means, and now the Chávezes are all about their houses and cars and property.

And Chávez, at the beginning, 1999 to 2000, tried to curb the influence of his family in Barinas, but unfortunately it has gotten out of control. Some people focus on Hugo's mother, a very strong woman, a kind of matriarch -- which is not unusual at all, because the Venezuelan society is essentially matriarchal. Women are more in charge of things than men are, especially at home. While the men are off at work, the women stay home, and they are the ones in charge of the children and of the house.

At Mrs. Elena's house, that situation was even more pronounced. She has exercised a powerful influence on her children. She can [be] authoritarian even toward her own husband. I know that when Chávez tried to limit the ascendance of his family in Barinas, his mother interfered to impose her will and promote her other sons to government positions from which they would benefit, as if they were entitled to them. This, I think, looks terrible to people from small towns. In Barinas and everywhere else, nepotism is censured and condemned, especially if it is accompanied by sudden wealth and change of lifestyle apparent to everybody. We have a saying here, "small town, big hell," because in a small town, you can't escape scrutiny and gossip.

Did Chávez lose popularity before, with or after the reform?

His popularity has worn off over time. Loss of support doesn't happen all at once, but manifests itself at a specific moment, which is quite different. A law of Hegelian dialectic that Marx adopted -- the law of quantitative changes and qualitative changes -- is that the citizens experience a progressive dissatisfaction until a breakdown occurs.

I think there was an accumulation of collective dissatisfaction with Chávez because of a lack of solutions to problems he has acknowledged himself. I believe he is the most accurate critic of himself and his administration. He says that there are three things that conspire against his revolution: bureaucracy, inefficiency and corruption. He knows the diagnosis but does nothing to cure it.

He has put the ideological agenda above everything else, without allowing for the character of the Venezuelan people. When he tries to impose an archaic totalitarian project similar to the failed experiments of socialism in the former Soviet society in Cuba or like that of North Korea, as opposed to what people want from him, he loses.

For example, Chávez won by a healthy margin in the elections of 2006, by 3 million votes more than his rival, Manuel Rosales. And a year later he lost the referendum by more than 3 million votes. And, one wonders, what happened in a year? Well, what happened was that people were dissatisfied with Chávez; they realized that his agenda was different from theirs, but they gave him another chance.

This year, Chávez made the mistake of closing RCTV [Radio Caracas Televisión Internacional], a traditional source of entertainment known for its soap operas and watched primarily by the poorest people -- the same people who voted for Chávez. After doing this, he attempted to impose a model, proposed under the constitutional reform, for a totalitarian state with restrictions on freedom and the inclusion of a constitutional provision which would allow him to remain in power indefinitely. What people were asking for was milk in the stores, security in the streets of the main cities of Venezuela, jobs and progress. In other words, he pushed aside the agenda of the Venezuelan people and substituted his own.

... Until then, Chávez had been the most important Venezuelan leader in recent history, but today Chávez is a Chávez in decline, because on Dec. 2, [2007,] his political project and his intention of remaining in power indefinitely were defeated.

Did that also happen in Barinas?

Well, Barinas is a special case. Chávez's father, the governor of Barinas, cannot be re-elected because of term limits. So Chávez finds himself at a crossroads, not knowing what to do about Barinas. Who is going to run as the Chavista candidate? First of all, there is a family feud. Argenis Chávez, now secretary of state and his father's right-hand man, is said to be the person who actually gives the orders, because his father is ill due to a cardiovascular incident he had three or four years ago.

So Argenis aspires to the governorship of Barinas. So does Adán, the older brother for whom Chávez feels more respect and who has held very high posts; nowadays he is minister of education. And in addition to the Chávezes, there are other Chavista candidates. So the destiny of Chavismo is going to depend upon who is going to be the candidate. If Chávez is going to appoint a family member to continue the monarchy and the hegemony of the clan, I believe there will be a break within Chavismo and that the Chávezes will be defeated in the elections in Barinas.

We spoke a bit about Chávez's childhood. I'm curious about the little baseball player. When did you notice him beginning to have political aspirations?

That is a story that Chávez himself has told. He went to the military academy in Caracas planning to be a baseball player. He believed that the academy would open up the way for him to get into Venezuelan baseball and then into the big leagues, his childhood dream -- a dream which, in a way, he has fulfilled, because he got to pitch once in Yankee Stadium during one of his visits to the United Nations.

His interest in politics was awakened by his brother Adán, who had become involved with the left in college. Chávez was also influenced politically by his neighbor José Esteban Ruíz Guevara and his son Vladimir Ruíz. So Chávez began to transform from being a man with military and athletic aspirations to someone who equates politics with the military. Chávez has told this anecdote: that when he realized that he no longer wanted to play in the big leagues and emulate Látigo Chávez, he visited his hero's grave at the Cementerio General del Sur, here in Caracas, prayed, and explained to Látigo that he was not going to follow in his footsteps anymore.

So slowly he transformed his objectives. He left baseball behind to follow the politicized road of the military, which would eventually culminate in his leading a conspiracy within the armed forces and the coup of Feb. 4, 1992.

He sounds like a person of great gestures, ... a heroic person.

He is more grandiloquent than heroic. To be heroic he would need to have a less developed survival instinct. He dreams of heroism and admires the hero, but he doesn't have the decisiveness of the hero. He admires political figures such as [Cuban President] Fidel Castro; [late leader of Colombia's FARC rebel movement] Manuel Marulanda, "Tirofijo"; [Sandinista leader and former Nicaraguan President] Daniel Ortega; [Marxist revolutionary Ernesto] "El Che" Guevara; [overthrown Chilean President] Salvador Allende -- because he sees in them models of the hero he has not been able to be. Being a hero requires courage and detachment, and even the capacity to overcome the fear of death, as Allende did, or as "El Che" Guevara or Fidel Castro did in order to make the Cuban revolution a reality.

Chávez has never made the gestures of a hero. The morning after his insurrection, Feb. 4, 1992, he surrendered meekly, even before his other comrades did. On April 11 everybody was asking him to sacrifice himself, to fight until the end, but he surrendered to the generals. In other words, he has always lacked heroic quality. I don't know why, and I don't judge him, because we Venezuelans say that fear is free. After all, fear is a human feeling like any other. But obviously he doesn't have the vocation of the heroes he admires so much. He praises them, worships them, but he is not cut from the same cloth.

Is he trying to be like Fidel?

It's very difficult to be like Fidel. Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer, said that in spite of everything, Fidel Castro is an exceptional figure, even though he will eventually be judged unfavorably by history. Castro changed into an absurd dictator whose only legacy will be having subjected his people to suffering and hunger for 50 years. But it is obvious that Castro's personality is full of qualities that even his worst enemies recognize. I have read testimonies of people in exile in Miami, even people like Luis Posada Carriles, [who was convicted in 2000 of plotting to assassinate Castro], who studied at the University of Havana, who say that Fidel was exceptional for his intelligence and physical strength, for his courage and for his education.

Fidel is an exceptional figure, but Chávez falls in love with the decrepit Fidel Castro, the Fidel Castro at the end of his life who has been abandoned by fortune. Let us not forget that in 1959, '60, Fidel Castro was the icon of Latin America and the intellectuals of the world, including Jean-Paul Sartre. This was due to Castro's personality, his attributes, his heroism in the assaults on the Moncada Barracks and the Presidential Palace, and in the battles in the Sierra Maestra [Mountains]. An exceptional man.

I think Chávez sees him as a guide, as a father, and worships him, but obviously he has neither Fidel's conditions nor his attributes. We are talking about two completely different things. And even though it sounds very disparaging, I would say that Chávez is not even fit to tie Fidel's shoelaces, regardless of what Fidel ended up becoming.

posted november 19, 2008

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