Since his death on March 5, many have called Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chavez, a great and revolutionary leader, a hero and a champion of the poor. His supporters have raised him to the status of a god it seems, with a ridiculously over-the-top funeral and plans to embalm his body and place it in a museum. The aftermath of Chavez’s death has caused Venezuela to gain quite a bit of attention as people look back at what his impact as president was on the oil-rich South American country.
As someone who was born in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, I’ve witnessed the great effect that Chavez has had on my country. I moved from Venezuela to the United States at a very young age. But, since most of our family was still in Caracas, my mother would take my sister and me to visit as often as possible. We were always there for our birthdays, our relatives’ birthdays, holidays, etc. It was the closest to growing up in Venezuela as we could get. But then the visits stopped. It was six years before we went back to Venezuela and, at the time, being only about 12 years old, I didn’t really understand why. I asked my parents why we weren’t going anymore, and they said it had to do with the political situation but that they couldn’t explain it to me because I was too young. I didn’t really question it, and I was just excited that we were going back after so many years.
My earliest memories from those visits were of Caracas’s beautiful scenery. I remember how I used to dream of going to the tops of the immense mountains surrounding the city so that I could catch a cloud. When I went back after those six years, I was shocked. Many of the hills and mountainsides that I had remembered as being so beautiful were covered in irregularly shaped colored boxes. I asked my mom what they were, and she explained to me that those weren’t boxes, but houses for the poor. After that visit, a few more years passed before we went back. Again, my parents mentioned the political situation and the insecurity, warning my sister and me to use only our Venezuelan passports and to speak only in Spanish.
By then, I had a slightly better understanding of Chavez and what was going on in the country, but the reality of the situation hadn’t hit me yet. On our way to my grandparents’ house, I again saw the boxes on the sides of mountains, but they seemed to have grown exponentially this time. I mentioned to my mom that there hadn’t been that many the last time we were there, and she shook her head sadly, saying, “Gracias a Chavez” — ‘Thanks to Chavez.’ A few days later, on our way back from a mall, we got stuck in the horror that is Caracas traffic. The really terrifying thing, though, wasn’t the cars blatantly disregarding lanes and the seeming millions of reckless drivers; it was the row of soldiers standing along the side of the highway, guns pointed straight at my window.
More years passed between that visit and my last one, which was two summers ago for my cousin’s wedding. During that time, I was able to come to a much better understanding of the situation in Venezuela. Chavez had completely taken over Venezuela and turned it into a poverty-ridden, semi-military, semi-personalistic dictatorship, disguised as a democracy.
How did he do this? By appealing to the poor, of course. By relying on the ignorance of the population to secure loyal followers while actually worsening Venezuela’s situation. Poverty had spread to every corner of Caracas, and that was nothing compared to what was happening elsewhere in the country: power outages, food and supply shortages, kidnappings, killings and robberies. Friends of the family were being attacked and kidnapped, tied up and left in their cars while men robbed their houses, or left for dead on the side of the road. While Chavez was preaching how much better Venezuela had become and his supporters blindly accepted every word he spoke, the reality of the situation was terrifying. No wonder my parents were so reluctant to visit. The increasing hatred toward the United States combined with the already present dangers in Caracas — it’s a wonder we’ve been able to visit at all.
After Chavez’s death was announced, my grandparents told us how people were celebrating in the streets. The atmosphere in my house was more somber, as my mom repeatedly told me that someone’s death should never be the cause for celebration. Still, Chavez’s death seems to have done more harm to the anti-Chavistas than good as his supporters portray him as a savior and pledge their loyalty to Nicolas Maduro, his successor. It’s truly incredible how ignorant his followers can be, not only of how Chavez worsened Venezuela’s situation, but also of how the government is blatantly throwing the constitution out the window and taking on a much more openly oppressive role. While Chavez was in power, independent media virtually disappeared. Globovision was the only remaining channel that was openly critical of the government. Now, Globovision has been bought by a government-friendly company — so much for freedom of speech. If that wasn’t enough, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice declared that Maduro was to have the official title of ‘president,’ allowing him to run in the presidential elections to be held in April, which is unconstitutional.
Chavez’s followers preach that he was a great and just leader, and will blindly support Maduro simply because Chavez told them to. The government is slowly but surely removing its democratic disguise, while the people refuse to realize what is happening around them. There is a small hope that Henrique Capriles, the candidate representing the opposition, will beat Maduro in the elections, but many of us know how unlikely that situation would be. Still, this hope — the hope that Venezuela will finally be able to shake off the years of Chavismo, hate and violence — is all we have left.
Gabriela Vasquez is an LSA freshman.