Hugo Chávez, who died yesterday afternoon, was something of an Emersonian hero. “Speak your latent conviction,” said the sage of Concord, “and it shall be the universal sense.”
Chávez said things that other people thought, or at least recognized that they thought after he said them.
One could say that he expanded the notion of the political. He sang and recited poems during his innumerable hours of television… he talked incessantly.
This bothered the shit out of some people. Including me (I have to admit) some of the time. But a lot of the time I liked it.
Most people won’t remember well the details of the moment in which Chávez implied that George W. Bush was the devil. The truth is it wasn’t planned at all.
I believe the “mot juste” simply occurred to Chávez there in UN in 2006. Who smelled more of sulfur than Bush? The words traveled around the world.
These days, for a variety of reasons — even theoretical reasons — it is widely understood that political discourse has gotten pretty useless, pretty separated from people’s real needs.
In Argentina people said in 2001 “Que se vayan todos!”; in the Spanish State everyone understands politics to be the equivalent of corruption. Let’s not even speak of the U.S. (Does anyone remember “Change” or “Yes we can”?).
Chávez had his own solution to this problem. Surely it was problematic, excessively personalist.
On the other hand, it did connect with people in a way that went beyond simple reason. It inspired Venezuelans, Latin Americans, and many others.
To inspire is literally to fill with breath, or life. Politics has become something too without feeling, without flavor, without life. It has become an affair conducted by strawmen and strawwomen.
Chávez, whatever one thinks of him, was not a straw man. He was actually a gentleman in that he was never vulgar (in the real sense of that term), and he never humiliated weak people. Only the strong.
The earliest video recording of Chávez that I have seen shows a young officer, incredibly gregarious, singing and trying to get people to sing. It would be a good way to remember him if it were not for his most brilliant political moment: the “por ahora” speech.
This was not planned either: Chávez, after giving himself up in the failed military uprising of 1992, was permitted a couple of minutes on national television. He basically said that the uprising should cease, that everyone should abandon their arms.
But almost unconsciously, without thinking much about it, really only to be true to himself (his latent conviction) Chávez slipped in the words “por ahora” (“for now”).
That was the proverbial spark that set fire to the field. That fire continues to burn in Latin America and in the world, and will for some time.
It is also true that a few more sparks of its kind are needed.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.