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I want to speak a bit about Chávez the man. He was born into a family of very modest means in 1954 in Sabaneta de Barinas. A small town in the Venezuelan plains: a town that had only three streets, none of them paved.
Hugo was the second of 6 brothers and sisters. He was so poor that his family couldn’t afford to buy him shoes. His grandmother Rosa Inés took him to his first ever day of classes. Hugo wore a pair of alpargatas that she had made out of soft cloth and rope. But the kindergarten teacher would not allow the little boy into the class, until the family could find a way to buy him some shoes.
President Chávez remembers he had no toys as a boy and said that he made do by playing with his brother, Adán, imaginary games using imaginary toys: imagen that.
When Americans ask me why there is such an outpouring of emotion among Venezuelans over the death of this man, I point out that the ordinary people of Venezuela saw themselves in President Chávez. The President was a compendium of the very fabric of the country: part black, part indigenous and part white: a man who came from poverty and whose every decision as President was marked by his humble origins. President Chávez never forgot where he came from, and he always remembered who he was.
He dedicated himself to giving a voice to the voiceless: to bringing dignity to a people who had been humiliated for centuries by those in power. To those ends, he empowered the Venezuelan people through the People´s Assemblies he forged throughout the land. Thanks to President Chávez, everything is open to debate in Venezuela. Everything. For the first time in their history, Venezuelans know how to govern themselves.
President Chávez always called Venezuelans hermano, camarada or ciudadano: brother, comrade or citizen. And soon the people began to use those terms when addressing their compatriots. A workingwoman in Caracas summed up how much this meant to her and indeed to the people of Venezuela, when she said: “Citizens? Before Chávez, we didn´t even know we were human beings.”
That, my brothers and sisters, is the President´s legacy.
The Bolivarian Revolution has dramatically reduced poverty in Venezuela, virtually eliminated misery and totally eliminated illiteracy. The wealth generated by its oil company, PDVSA, now goes to people in need, rather than to the foreign oil companies that made billions of dollars from Venezuela´s natural resources—yet managed before Chávez to pay only a 1% tariff on their profits.
The Revolution created Health Missions throughout the country to give free medical care to millions of needy citizens. I once rode in a plane from Havana to Caracas with over a hundred Venezuelans of humble means who were returning home after receiving medical treatment in Cuba, paid for by the Revolution. Many had arrived in Cuba blind in both eyes and they were now cured, thanks to President Chavez’ Operation Miracle.
I will never forget that plane ride. Once they were blind and now they see. Those passengers savored the sight of white clouds against the backdrop of a bright blue sky and marveled at the sight of the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean Sea. They sang during the entire trip. And as the plane was landing, they broke out into a stirring rendition of “Gloria al Bravo Pueblo”, the Venezuelan national anthem, and finished it with choruses of: “Gracias Chávez, Gracias Fidel, Gracias Cuba, Gracias Venezuela.” That, my friends, is what the Revolution is all about.
Yes, it´s true: President Chávez rubbed some the wrong way. The government of the USA, the Venezuelan oligarchy and the media it controls hated him. But the President used to say that unless there is opposition, there is no Revolution. And President Chávez was very much engaged in the business of making Revolution.
He could have been just another Latin American politician: crass and commonplace. But he transcended mediocrity. The President was a leader, a revolutionary, the Simón Bolivar of our time. He fought for a united Latin America, free of the domination long exercised by Spain and the United States.
He was a very unconventional President. He cried with us, sang with us, ate arepas with us, laughed with us and bucked every known rule of diplomatic protocol. He was in a word human. Some talking heads, academicians, businessmen and bankers could never stomach a leader like that, but the people felt his sincerity, his humanity, his brilliance, and his joy of living. He would interrupt his speeches with personal greetings to workers and farmers he had met during his many trips among the people. “Hola Pepe. Un saludo para Pepe en Barquisimeto”. Or, “Gladys en Petare. We are going to finish that project we discussed”.
Or he would break out in English and exclaim with his booming voice. Fidel: How are you Fidel? Or he would send a special message to President Bush in English. Mr. Danger, if you decide to invade Venezuela, I´ll be waiting for you in the Sabana. Come on here, Mr. Danger.” And who can ever forget his exclamation at the UN podium where Bush Jr. had spoken only a few hours earlier: “Azufre. It still smells like sulfur here.”
He was not an armchair socialist, content to debate the metaphysics of revolution. He was committed to changing Venezuela and he did. He was committed to changing Latin America and he did. He knew that in order for revolutionaries to effect change, they need first of all to seize power and then construct a socialism that is, as Mariátegui said, neither calco ni copia, sino creación heroíca—neither an imitation or a copy, but instead a heroic creation.
President Chávez was a Bolivarian tsunami. He radically changed Venezuela and indeed all of Latin America. Some have said that he has left a vacuum that can never be filled. I disagree. As José Martí said, “Dying is the same as living and even better still, if in life we have done what we ought to.” President Chávez’ deeds exceeded expectations. In death, he is now greater than ever. He shines a bright light on the dark wilderness of poverty, repression and exploitation.
Twelve elections he won before his death at the young age of 58: a remarkable record. Yet his enemies called him a despot. How many elections did Mr. Danger win? King Juan Carlos of Spain, who so criticized President Chávez, has never stood for elections. Kings believe that they should not have to stoop to such trivial matters. They believe they have inherited a God-given right to rule over us mere commoners.
Whenever I arrived in Caracas, turned on the television and saw President Chávez´ face I smiled. I smiled anticipating what he would say next. Among the many attributes that we assign to him, let us never forget fun. Yes. President Chávez was fun. He was a fun guy, and that is another reason he appealed to so many. Another reason he reached even the little children in our society.
A few years ago, I watched a children’s theatre company performing in Caracas. After their performance, President Chávez went on stage to thank the kids. They were in their performance costumes. “What are you dressed as?” the President asked a little girl who was wearing a black cape, a pink blouse that glowed in the dark and a top hat. The little girl responded, “I am a magician.” “Well, don´t make me disappear”, he said to her. “No Mr. President. You, I would have to multiply”, she responded.
Well ladies and gentleman, President Chávez is now multiplied. Today, together we are all Chávez. He is in our hearts and minds. But as President Nicolás Maduro said on Sunday in Caracas, “We are all Chávez, only if we are united. If we are divided, we are nothing.”
Please allow me a variation on the words of one of the most beautiful of national anthems, Cuando el despotismo levanta la voz, seguid el ejemplo que Chávez nos dió. (When despotism raises its voice, follow the example that Chávez gave us). My brothers and sisters, we can make our dream a reality, but only if we remain united. As President Chávez sang to us many times, Compatriotas fieles, la fuerza es la unión. (Faithful fellow citizens, our strength is in our unity).
Our north star is the south. It is Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America, our dream of a better tomorrow for the poor people of this earth, our dream of making possible the seemingly impossible, our dream de tomar el cielo por asalto (to take heaven by storm): President Chávez’ dream to reach the unreachable star.
It’s the same star that the Man of La Mancha also followed.
This was his quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far
To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell
For a heavenly cause
And he knew if he would only be true
To this glorious quest
That his heart would lie peaceful and calm
When he´s laid to his rest
And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star
Que viva el President Chávez!
Que viva el Presidente Nicolás Maduro!
Que vivan los pobres de la tierra!
Comandante Presidente Hugo Chávez Frías: te acompañaremos siempre!
Chávez Vive, Maduro Sigue!
José Pertierra is an attorney in Washington, DC. He represents the government of Venezuela and delivered these remarks at a Memorial Service for President Chávez at St. Stephens Church in Washington on March 12, 2013.