Seven weeks ago, Venezuelans awoke to a bright Tuesday morning without an inkling that the day millions had been dreading was finally upon them. That afternoon, the announcement many believed would never come: Hugo Chavez, the revolutionary president who promised to preside over “the resurrection of Venezuela” when he came to power fifteen years ago, had lost his battle with cancer at the age of 58.
Chavez’s legacy, hotly disputed amongst Venezuelans who variously deify and detest him, is at least in part a country riven by in-fighting between his most fervent supporters and fiercest critics; between the Chavistas and the Chav-nots. Given the strength and depth of feeling on both sides towards his regime – indifference is off the menu here – it was somewhat inevitable that the vacuum left by his passing would be filled, at least in the short-term, by violence on the streets of Caracas.
Last week, seven people were killed and more than sixty injured during post-election clashes in what has become one of the world’s deadliest capital cities; the rate of homicide having quadrupled since 1998, today Caracas has a murder rate comparable with Baghdad. Now, with Chavez’s anointed successor Nicolas Maduro sworn in as president despite allegations of electoral irregularity by a furious opposition, the immediate future of Venezuela looks decidedly uncertain.
Girish Gupta, a former Mancunion news editor now based in Caracas, has found himself in the thick of a tumultuous period for Latin American politics. At just 26, he has reported from four continents, covering the notorious Mexican drug wars before moving over 2,000 miles south in 2011. The young freelance journalist paints a picture of a truly dichotomous nation; a country of outstanding natural beauty pockmarked by crumbling, slum-ridden cities, where the struggling middle classes rub awkwardly against a newly-enfranchised poor.
“There are many people who would very, very fervently argue that Chavez completely destroyed this country,” Girish explains. “People used to call Caracas ‘the New York of South America’ – they don’t any more. Venezuelans were known for just buying everything because they had so much money.”
On the other hand, he says, “roughly the same number of people here regard Chavez as having saved the poor in this country. Poor people who were completely ignored have been given a voice – they now have a stake in politics, which never happened before – and they will tell you that this guy is their God, literally. They use quasi-religious language when they talk about him. So the ‘Chavez: good or bad’ question is incredibly polarising. There are people who will argue absolutely adamantly both ways.”
El Comandante, as he was known, was perhaps the most charismatic political figure of his era – “an absolutely fantastic personality,” according to Girish Gupta. “Chavez was great at populism. He was absolutely superb at connecting with people. For that reason it’s very difficult trying to get across to people just how powerful the love for Chavez is. It’s Christ-like, it’s ridiculous. Aside from North Korea, which is of course a very different situation, there is nothing remotely comparable. It’s just not something we ever see in western politics.”
One anecdote is particularly indicative of the Chavez phenomenon. “I spoke to ordinary Venezuelans when it was first revealed he had cancer and I said to them, what’s going to happen to this country when Chavez goes? And they would say, quite seriously, ‘he’s never going to die’,” Girish recalls. “So I said, alright, in twenty years when he’s not in power… ‘he will be in power,’ they would say. That sort of language was quite common.”
Yet this reverence is almost entirely at odds with the economic reality of present-day Venezuela. The country is, to all intents and purpose, an economic basketcase. “The economy is absolutely screwed,” Girish tells The Mancunion. “You’ve got one of the highest rates on inflation in Latin America [an eye-watering 25 percent]. You’ve got a shortage of basic products here because exporters have to contend with a collapse in the currency; you can’t exchange for dollars. For me, that’s amazing – I can fly to New York for 200 bucks – but Venezuelans are really suffering economically.”
Have Chavez’s ever-loyal supporters simply ignored these facts? “People never associated Chavez with these failings because, you know, it was Chavez. ‘He’s cool,’ they would say. ‘Look at what he’s done for us.’ They blamed all of the problems on government ministers,” Girish says.
Nicolas Maduro, who won last week’s general election by just 235,000 votes – a hair’s breadth – cannot rely on stonking rhetoric or a finely tuned cult of personality to power his presidency. On Thursday, a leading opposition newspaper splashed a picture of the bus driver-turned-president on their front page, complete with Hitler moustache. The defeated candidate of the right, Henrique Capriles, has cried foul play and looks set to dig in his heels, whilst the United States have refused to recognise the result of the election.
Put simply, the great challenge of Maduro’s presidency will be the fact that “he doesn’t have the same hold that Chavez did. I don’t think even he would be audacious enough to say that. I spoke to several people who said, ‘I’m a Chavista, I’ve always been a Chavista and I always will be a Chavista, but I’m going to vote for Capriles this time.’”
And yet, Maduro has much to do beyond holding his own party together. The eruption of violence which followed the election result was horribly apt, unfolding as it did in a city suffering from a criminal epidemic. “You speak to any person in Venezuela and they tell you the key here is crime. There’s no confidence in the police, and the prison services are incompetent,” Girish says.
“You don’t feel safe or secure. When I go back to London I pull my phone out of my pocket and I’m surprised that I can do that. I don’t like walking around at night, even in the nicer areas of town, and the danger isn’t about getting mugged, it’s about the guns that they’ve got, and the fact that they don’t care about using them.”
He continues: “It makes no difference to them whether they kill you or not, and that’s the scary thing for me. Forget about your new iPhone, forget about your computer, you don’t want to be in a position where these guys get pissed off with you and decide to shoot you, because no one is ever going to catch them. So no, I don’t feel safe here at all.”
Fortunately, Girish tells me, he is yet to fall victim to crime in Caracas, but he fully expects to at some point. “Pretty much everyone I know has been,” he laments. “Before I lived in Mexico, everyone told me how dangerous it was, but you can walk around Mexico City at night, and it’s fine. But in Caracas you can’t. You genuinely cannot. A colleague of mine recently saw a guy killed coming out of a bank one day, so it does manifest itself even in places where you should feel quite secure.”
Despite the lack of personal security, Girish has no desire to turn his back on Venezuela for the comfort of a Fleet Street newsroom. “Politically it’s very, very interesting here, and it’s so much more valuable [than regular journalism] in every single sense. It’s not like I have a small patch to myself – I have a whole country to myself, a whole region to myself. The money you can earn from freelancing is absolutely ludicrous, so there’s absolutely nothing now that would attract me to a desk-based job in London.”
Though Girish met Hugo Chavez on several occasions – “I usually had a couple of words with him, though nothing of substance” – he never had the opportunity to interview him. His view on the legacy of Chavez is of a mixed picture.
“Caracas is crumbling a little bit – it’s not a nice city, it’s not been taken care of – which is sad because otherwise it’s such an incredible country. It’s got the world’s tallest waterfall, it’s got this great Amazon jungle, it has everything, not to mention all of the oil wealth that hasn’t been taken care of. Venezuela could and should be very nice, because they’ve got all of this money.”
The long shadow of Chavez will doubtless extend for decades into the future, but now the fate of one of Latin America’s great powers lies in the hands of a divisive President Maduro.
Girish Gupta will be a judge at the University of Manchester’s inaugural Student Media Awards on 26 April.