Tariq Ali for the Guardian, March 6th 2013
Once I asked whether he preferred enemies who hated him because they knew what he was doing or those who frothed and foamed out of ignorance. He laughed. The former was preferable, he explained, because they made him feel that he was on the right track. Hugo Chávez’s death did not come as a surprise, but that does not make it easier to accept. We have lost one of the political giants of the post-communist era. Venezuela, its elites mired in corruption on a huge scale, had been considered a secure outpost of Washington and, at the other extreme, the Socialist International. Few thought of the country before his victories. After 1999, every major media outlet of the west felt obliged to send a correspondent. Since they all said the same thing (the country was supposedly on the verge of a communist-style dictatorship) they would have been better advised to pool their resources.
I first met him in 2002, soon after the military coup instigated by Washington and Madrid had failed and subsequently on numerous occasions. He had asked to see me during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He inquired: “Why haven’t you been to Venezuela? Come soon.” I did. What appealed was his bluntness and courage. What often appeared as sheer impulsiveness had been carefully thought out and then, depending on the response, enlarged by spontaneous eruptions on his part. At a time when the world had fallen silent, when centre-left and centre-right had to struggle hard to find some differences and their politicians had become desiccated machine men obsessed with making money, Chávez lit up the political landscape.
He appeared as an indestructible ox, speaking for hours to his people in a warm, sonorous voice, a fiery eloquence that made it impossible to remain indifferent. His words had a stunning resonance. His speeches were littered with homilies, continental and national history, quotes from the 19th-century revolutionary leader and president of Venezuela Simón Bolívar, pronouncements on the state of the world and songs. “Our bourgeoisie are embarrassed that I sing in public. Do you mind?” he would ask the audience. The response was a resounding “No”. He would then ask them to join in the singing and mutter, “Louder, so they can hear us in the eastern part of the city.” Once before just such a rally he looked at me and said: “You look tired today. Will you last out the evening?” I replied: “It depends on how long you’re going to speak.” It would be a short speech, he promised. Under three hours.
The Bolívarians, as Chávez’s supporters were known, offered a political programme that challenged the Washington consensus: neo-liberalism at home and wars abroad. This was the prime reason for the vilification of Chávez that is sure to continue long after his death.