At dusk, Carlos Andrés Pérez walked off the plane that had brought him from Davos, Switzerland, and was surprised to see his defense minister, General Fernando Ochoa Antich, on the tarmac. "What's up?" he asked, concerned. The minister put him at ease with a story that was so believable that the President went home to the presidential residence La Casona, instead of his office in Miraflores Palace. He was about to fall asleep when the same minister of defense called to inform him of a military uprising in Maracay. As soon as he had set foot in Miraflores, the artillery blasts began.
It was February 4, 1992. Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías, in sacred homage to famous dates, was leading the assault from an improvised headquarters in La Planicie Historical Museum. The President knew then that his only chance was to turn to the people, and he went straight to the studios of Venevisión to speak to the nation. Twelve hours later, the military coup was a failure. Chávez surrendered, but only under the condition that he too be allowed to speak to the people on television. The young creole colonel, with his parachutist's beret and his admirable ease with words, took full responsibility for the action and turned his speech into a political triumph. Although he spent two years in jail before being amnestied by President Rafael Caldera, many of his supporters, and not a few of his enemies, view the speech he made in defeat as the beginning of the electoral campaign that would carry him to the presidency just seven years later.
Hugo Chávez Frías told me this as we rode in a Venezuelan Air Force plane from Havana to Caracas less than two weeks before his inauguration as the constitutional president of Venezuela on February 2, 1999. We had met three days earlier in Havana, during a meeting with Cuban President Fidel Castro and Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, and the first thing that impressed me was his body of reinforced concrete. He had an immediate friendliness and a home-grown charm that were unmistakably Venezuelan. We both tried to meet up again, but it was not possible for either of us, so we decided to fly together to Caracas so we could chat about his life and other miracles.
It was a good experience for a semi-retired reporter. While he told me his life, bit by bit I discovered a personality that did not correspond at all to the despotic image we get of him through the media. It was a different Chávez. Which of the two was real?
The strongest argument against him during the campaign was his recent past as a coup-plotting conspirator. But the history of Venezuela has absorbed at least four like him, beginning with Rómulo Betancourt, correctly or incorrectly remembered today as the father of Venezuelan democracy. He overthrew Isaías Medina Angarita, an old military democrat who had tried to cleanse the country of the 36-year legacy of Juan Vicente Gómez. His successor, novelist Rómulo Gallegos, was overthrown by General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who was to remain in power for 11 years. He, in turn, was overthrown by an entire generation of young democrats who inaugurated the longest period of elected presidents.
The February coup seems to be the only thing that did not turn out well for Hugo Chávez Frías. He views it positively, however, as a providential reverse. It is his way of understanding good luck, or intelligence, or intuition, or astuteness, or whatever one can call the magic touch that has favored him since he entered the world in Sabaneta, in the state of Barinas, on July 28, 1954, born under Leo, the sign of power. Chávez, a fervent Catholic, attributes his charmed existence to the 100-year-old scapular which he has worn since childhood, inherited from a maternal great-grandfather, Colonel Pedro Pérez Delgado, one of his tutelary heroes.
His parents barely scraped by on their primary-school-teacher salaries, and from the age of nine he had to help them by selling candies and fruit from a cart. Sometimes he went by donkey to visit his maternal grandmother in Los Rastrojos, a neighboring town that seemed like a city because it had a little power plant that provided two hours of lights in the evening, as well as a midwife who welcomed him and his four brothers into the world. His mother wanted him to be a priest, but he only made it to acolyte, though he rang the bells with such delight that everyone recognized his ring. "It's Hugo who's ringing," they would say. Among his mother's books he found an encyclopedia, whose first chapter seemed heaven-sent and seduced him immediately: "How to Succeed in Life."
It was actually just a list of options, and he tried nearly all of them. As a 12-year-old painter, astonished by the works of Michelangelo and David, he won first prize at a regional exhibit. As a musician, he became indispensable at birthday parties and serenades with his mastery of the cuatro and his excellent voice. As a baseball player, he became a first-rate catcher. The military option was not on the list, nor had it occurred to him until he was told that the best route to the major leagues was via the military academy at Barinas. It must have been another of the scapular's miracles, because he entered the academy on the first day of the Andrés Bello Plan, which gave students in military schools the chance to pursue academic studies as far as they wished.
Chávez studied political science, history and Marxism-Leninism. He developed a passion for the life and work of Bolivar-his senior Leo- whose proclamations he learned by heart. But his first awareness of contemporary politics came with the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende in September 1973. Chávez did not understand: If Chileans elected Allende, why should Chilean officers overthrow him? A short while later, the captain of his company assigned him with the task of keeping an eye on a son of Josó Vicente Rangel, who was believed to be a Communist. "Look at the way life unfolds," Chávez told me with an explosive laugh. "Now his father is my foreign minister." Even more ironic is the fact that when he graduated he received his saber from the hands of the President whom 20 years later he would try to overthrow, Carlos Andrés Pérez.
"What's more," I told him, "you were about to kill him."
"Not at all," Chávez protested. "The idea was to set up a constituent assembly and return to the barracks."
From the first moment I realized that he was a natural storyteller, a product of Venezuela's creative, exhilarating popular culture. He has a great sense of timing and a memory that has a touch of the supernatural, allowing him to recite poems by Pablo Neruda or Walt Whitman, or entire passages of Rómulo Gallegos.
At a very young age, by chance, he discovered that his great-grandfather was not a mass murderer, as his mother had told him, but a legendary warrior from the times of Juan Vicente Gómez. Chávez's enthusiasm was such that he decided to write a book to set the record straight. He waded through historical archives and military libraries, covering the region from town to town, his historian's kit in a backpack, to reconstruct his great-grandfather's travels by the testimonies of his survivors. From that point, he placed him on the altar of his heroes and began to wear the protective scapular that had been his.
One day he crossed the Arauca bridge at the Venezuelan-Colombian border, unaware that he had crossed into Colombian territory. The Colombian captain who searched his backpack found material reasons for accusing him of being a spy: He had a camera, a tape-recorder, secret papers, photos of the region, a graphic military map and two regulation pistols. His identity documents, as usual with spies, could have been false. The discussion went on for several hours in an office where the only painting on the wall was a portrait of Bolivar astride his horse. "I was nearly exhausted," Chávez told me. "The more I explained the less he understood." Then the words that would save him crossed his mind: "Look, my captain, the way life is: Just a century ago we were a single army, and that fellow who is watching us from the painting was the com-mander of us both. How could I be a spy?" The captain, moved, began to speak of the marvels of Gran Colombia, and the two ended up that night drinking beer from both countries in an Arauca bar. The following morning, with a headache they both shared, the captain returned Chávez's historian's tools and, in the middle of the international bridge, gave him a farewell embrace.
"From that time I had a concrete sense that something was wrong in Venezuela," Chávez told me. They assigned him to Oriente to head a squad of 13 soldiers and a communications team, on a mission to liquidate the last surviving guerrillas. One rainy night, a colonel from military intelligence leading a patrol of soldiers sought refuge in his camp. They held a few suspected guerrillas, recently captured, green around the gills and nothing but skin and bones. At about ten o'clock, as Chávez was drifting off to sleep, he heard heart-rend- ing shouts from the next room. "The soldiers were beating the prisoners with baseball bats wrapped in rags so they wouldn't leave marks," Chávez said. Indignant, he demanded that the colonel turn the prisoners over to him or leave, as he was not about to allow anyone to be tortured under his command. "The next day they threatened me with a court martial for insubordination," Chávez told me, "but they only held me in observation for a while."
A few days later he had another experience that overwhelmed the previous ones. He was buying meat for his troops when a military helicopter landed inside the base; it was loaded with soldiers badly wounded in a guerrilla ambush. In his arms Chávez carried a soldier who had several bullet wounds in his body. "Don't let me die, my lieutenant," he said trembling. They barely managed to get him to a car. Seven more died. That night, lying awake in his hammock, Chávez wondered: "What am I doing here? On one side peasants in military uniforms torture peasant guerrillas, and on the other peasant guerrillas kill peasants dressed in green. At this point, now that the war is virtually over, it makes no sense for anyone to shoot anybody." And in the airplane that carried us to Caracas, he concluded, "That was when I faced my first existential crisis."
The following day he awoke convinced that it was his destiny to found a movement. And so he did at the age of 23, and gave it a name that was an obvious choice: the Bolivarian People's Army of Venezuela. Its founding members: five soldiers and himself, with the rank of sub-lieutenant. "To what end?" I asked. Very simple, he replied: 'To prepare ourselves in case something happened." A year later, by this time commanding parachutists in a Maracay armored battalion, he began a larger conspiracy. But he told me he was using the word conspiracy only in its figurative sense of pulling people together for a common task they all agreed to.
That was the situation on December 17, 1982 when an unexpected episode took place that Chávez considers decisive in his life. He was a captain in a second regiment of parachutists, and an assistant intelligence officer. When he least expected it, the commander of the regiment, Angel Manrique, gave him the task of making a speech to 1,200 officers and troops.
At one in the afternoon, with the battalion standing at attention on the soccer field inside the base, the master of ceremonies introduced him. "And the speech?" the regiment commander asked as he watched him climb up on the stage without any papers. "I have no written speech," Chávez answered. And he began to improvise. It was a short speech, inspired by Bolivar and Marti, but with a personal take on Latin America's situation of oppression 200 years after its independence. The officers, his own and those who were not, listened impassively. Among them were Captains Felipe Acosta Carle and Jesús Urdaneta Hernández, sympathizers of his movement. The commander of the base, visibly disgusted, gave him a scolding everyone could hear: "Chávez, you sound like a politician."
"Understood," Chávez replied.
Felipe Acosta, who was six-foot-six and who ten soldiers could not subdue, stood face-to-face with the commander, and told him: "You are wrong, my commander. Chávez is no politician. He is a captain of today's men, and when you hear what he said in his speech, you will piss your pants."
Then Colonel Manrique called the troops to attention and said: "I want you to know that what Captain Chávez said was authorized by me. I gave the order for him to give that speech, and everything he said, although he did not put it in writing, he told me yesterday." He made a dramatic pause, and concluded with a cut-and-dry order: "None of this is to leave this base!"
When the ceremony was over, Chávez went on horseback with captains Felipe Acosta and Jesús Urdaneta to Samán del Guere, six miles away, and there they repeated the solemn oath Simón Bolivar made on Aventino Hill. "At the end, I changed some of the words," Chávez told me. "Instead of 'When we have broken all the chains that oppress us by will of Spanish power,' we said: 'Until we break the chains that oppress us and oppress the people by will of the powerful."'
From then on, all officers joining the secret movement had to take that oath. The last time was during the recent electoral campaign before a crowd of over 100,000 people. For years, they held clandestine meetings, each one larger than the last, with representatives of military officers from across the country. "We held meetings that lasted for two days in hidden places, studying the situation in the country, analyzing it, making contact with friendly civilian groups."
"Over ten years," Chávez told me, "we held five congresses without being discovered."
At this point in our chat, the President laughed mischievously, and with a wicked smile he said, "Well, we have always said that at first we were three. But now we can say that in reality there was a fourth man, whose identity we always hid in order to protect him. He was not discovered on February 4 and he remained active in the army and reached the rank of colonel. But now it is 1999 and we can reveal that the fourth man is here with us on this plane." He pointed his finger at a man in a seat by himself, and said: "Colonel Badull!"
According to Commander Chávez's version of his life, the culminating event was El Caracazo. He often repeated: "Napoleon said that a battle is decided in a moment of strategic inspiration." From that thought, Chávez developed three concepts. First, the historical hour. Another, the strategic minute. And finally, the tactical second. "We were worried because we didn't want to leave the army," Chávez said. "We had founded a movement, but we weren't sure what for." The real drama was that what was about to occur did occur, and they were not ready. "In other words," Chavez concluded, "the strategic minute caught us by surprise."
He was referring, of course, to the street riots of February 27, 1989 that have become known as El Caracazo. Among those most surprised was Chávez himself. Carlos Andrés Pérez had just taken office as president after a landslide at the polls, and it was inconceivable that 20 days later something so serious would take place. "I was on my way to class at the university, a graduate class, on the night of the twenty-seventh, and I stopped at Fort Tiuna to find a friend who could give me a bit of gas to get home," Chávez told me minutes before we landed in Caracas. "I saw that they were sending out the troops and I asked a colonel, 'Where are all those soldiers going?' Because they were sending out the ones from logistics who are not trained for combat, even less for urban fighting. They were recruits who were scared of the rifle they were carrying.
"So I asked the colonel: 'Where is that big group of people heading?' 1989. And the colonel told me: 'To the streets, to the streets.' The order they gave was this: 'This thing has got to be stopped no matter how, and here we go.' 'My God, but what orders do they have?' 'Well Chávez,' the colonel replied, 'the orders are to stop this thing no matter how.' And I told him: 'But my colonel, you can imagine what's going to happen.' And he told me: 'Well Chávez, it's an order and there is nothing you can do. May it turn out as God wishes."'
Chávez says he had a high fever at the time because he was suffering from rubella, and when he started his car he saw a soldier running without his helmet, his rifle dragging and his munitions scattering behind him. "I got out and called to him. And he climbed in, all nervous, sweating, a little 18-year-old kid. And I asked him: 'So, where are you going running like that?' 'My squad left me behind,' he said, 'and my lieutenant is headed off in that truck there. Take me, my major, take me.' I caught up to the truck and asked the driver, 'Where are you going?' And he said to me, 'I don't know a thing.' Who would have imagined." Chávez took a deep breath and nearly shouted, choking on the anguish of that terrible night: "You know, you send soldiers into the street, scared, with a rifle and 500 bullets, and they fire them all. They spray the streets with bullets, they spray the hills, the poor barrios. It was a disaster! And that's what happened: thousands died, among them Felipe Acosta."
"And instinct tells me they ordered him killed," said Chávez. "It was the moment we were waiting for to act." Said and done: From that moment they began to plan the coup d'tat that would end in failure three years later.
Our plane landed in Caracas at three in the morning. I saw from the window the swamp of lights of that unforgettable city where I lived for three crucial years for Venezuela and for me. The President said good-bye with a Caribbean embrace and an implicit invitation: "We'll see each other here on February 2." While he sauntered off with his bodyguards of decorated officers and close friends, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling and chatting pleasantly with two opposing men. 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.