Hugo Chavez died today.
I don't normally feel much when public figures die, but I find myself feeling somber. No, I'm not going to sing his praises. I don't know who he was. Instead, I want to talk about him as a symbol.
I don't know if he was a good man or a bad man. I heard good things about what he was doing in the early 2000s. I heard bad things later on. I remember when BBC reported on how upper middle class Venezuelans felt betrayed that George W. Bush did not provide military support for their coup. I mentioned that story to a well-informed friend who said not to trust the news because there has been a major smear campaign against Chavez in the United States media. But could the United States really control the BBC, I wondered?
All I really have are snapshots, and the snapshots don't tell a coherent story. I have some impressions of Chavez as symbol. He was a symbol of the long-standing struggle in Latin American countries for autonomy from the United States. He was a symbol for the Left, an alternative story to tell.
Here's what I remember:
When I was in college someone posted a link to a Wellesley forum to an article about a Latin American capital city that had gone car-free. I quickly read the article in excitement. I dreamed of an eco-eutopia where we are all less reliant on automobiles. I still do. What really grabbed my attention about the article, though, was the clear message from the leader: this policy had nothing to do with reducing oil consumption. The two reasons that were highlighted were first that the policy would reduce wear and tear on the roads, and second that it would remove a barrier between rich and poor.
I had never thought about reasons to reduce automobile use other than environmental concerns or public health concerns dealing with the consequences of our sedentary lifestyle. I found this alternative vision fascinating and compelling. It was an open window to another perspective I'd never considered: the automobile as enabling class warfare by keeping the rich from seeing the humanity of the poor. Mentioning the story months later, not remembering the name of the country or the city or the leader, I was told that this was almost certainly Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
A day came when I was sifting through David Rovics' website, in search of the songs "Minimum Wage Strike" and the "Song for the Biotic Baking Brigade," and came across "Sing a Song for Chavez":https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Do2mAXeU9Zw
Is that song truth? I'm sure it's a distortion. It's just a song. Certainly no reason to take it as any more accurate than anything else we hear about Chavez, but it's a facet of the story that we don't normally get in the American news media; a story of what he symbolized to the international Left: hope for an alternative story, a story kinder to the world's poor, less beholden to oil companies.
I don't tend to follow the mainstream media, and certainly not the television news, so I don't know how Chavez normally gets painted, but skimming New York Times items today, it seems clear that the story is pretty one-sided. I do remember catching an item during a presidential campaign (2008??) in which some Republicans disparaging the Democratic candidate by saying that he would invite monsters like Hugo Chavez to the diplomatic table. The Democrat responded that no, of course he would never do anything like that.
So Chavez was also a symbol of evil. I imagine it's probably true that he's done some bad things that I would not want the leader of my own country to do, ever. But Chavez as a major symbol of evil? The whole thing seems bizarrely out of proportion. We have a long-standing history of positive diplomatic relations with all kinds of tyrants. Certainly a lot of them worse than Chavez. Some of them we put into power. Some of them we trained to *be* tyrants. No, seriously. Look up "School of the Americas" sometime if you don't know what I'm talking about. (Here's a relevant article: https://targetedindividualscanada.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/us-training-manuals-declassified-by-lisa-haugaard/
Chavez may have been incorrect in imagining that the United States planned to assassinate him, but such a narrative is very understandable given the history of 20th century relations in this hemisphere.
And perhaps that's what I feel the most: Chavez's death feels like the end of an era carried over from the Cold War. The era of Eva Peron, Salvador Allende, Che Guevero, and Fidel Castro. All of them symbols... of hope, of fear, of the dreams of autonomy and equality, of the despair of ever really having them, and yes, of corruption, and of imagined threats to the American Dream.
The story isn't over, of course. Many of the threads are alive and well, but this feels to me like the end of a chapter.