In Search of Hugo Chávez

BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER

Almost as soon as a collapsing bridge forced the government of President Hugo Chávez Frías to shut down the only highway linking Venezuela's main airport and capital city in January, the recriminations began. Chávez's opponents accused him of wasting the country's oil bonanza on politically driven projects abroad while neglecting infrastructure at home. His supporters, in turn, charged the traditional elite that governed before him with squandering resources and ignoring fundamental needs for decades. In fact, both sets of charges were nearly identical. And both were right. Venezuela's leaders, Chávez as well as his predecessors, have long been guilty of misplaced priorities. As with so many things today in Latin America's most politically polarized society, they all share the responsibility for failing to maintain what is arguably the most important stretch of road in Venezuela.

Just before Chávez took office in February 1999, Gabriel García Márquez accompanied him on a flight to Caracas from Havana, Cuba, where the Venezuelan president-elect had visited with Fidel Castro. "I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling and chatting pleasantly with two opposing men," the Colombian Nobel laureate later wrote. "One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot." Seven years later, these "two opposing men" live on in the minds of Chávez's supporters and opponents.

To his most ardent backers in Venezuela and among the international left, Chávez is a hero driven by humanitarian impulses to redress social injustice and inequality -- problems long neglected by a traditional political class intent on protecting its own position while denying the masses their rightful share of wealth and meaningful political participation. He is bravely fighting for Latin American solidarity and standing up to the overbearing United States. With charisma and oil dollars, he is seizing an opportunity to correct the power and wealth imbalances that have long defined Venezuelan and hemispheric affairs.

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