Hugo Chavez’ Death: A View from Americans in Venezuela (Updated)

UPDATE:

In their report from Venezuela (below), Shayne Cokerdem and Diane DePriest mention the claims made by Venezuela’s Vice President Nicolás Maduro regarding the circumstances of Hugo Chávez’s death.

Naturally, the United States is anxious to find out whether Mr. Maduro “might provide an opening for closer ties between the two nations,” and in which direction he will take Venezuela.

For now — at least outwardly — there does not seem to be much difference.

As a matter of fact, the New York Times reports:

In the weeks leading up to his mentor’s death, Vice President Nicolás Maduro’s imitations of President Hugo Chávez became ever more apparent.

He has taken on many of Mr. Chávez’s vocal patterns and speech rhythms, and has eagerly repeated the slogan “I am Chávez” to crowds of supporters. He has mimicked the president’s favorite themes — belittling the political opposition and warning of mysterious plots to destabilize the country, even implying that the United States was behind Mr. Chávez’s cancer.

He has also adopted the president’s clothes, walking beside his coffin in an enormous procession on Wednesday wearing a windbreaker with the national colors of yellow, blue and red, as Mr. Chávez often did.

But, of course, the big question, The Times says is whether “Mr. Maduro, 50, his chosen successor, will continue to mirror the president and his unconventional governing style — or veer off in his own direction.”

Read more here

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Original Post:

President Obama, on the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, reaffirmed the United States’ support “for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.”

Many are mourning the death of this dictator and many others are celebrating, including Representative Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, who tweeted: “Good riddance to this dictator” to mark the occasion.

I personally mark this occasion with the hope — along with the hope expressed by the president — that indeed Venezuela will begin “a new chapter in its history.”

I hope so not only for the “Venezolanos,” but also for the thousands of Americans who live and work in Venezuela and who would certainly welcome improved relations between our two countries.

It so happens that close American relatives of a very good friend are expressing the same hope from Caracas, Venezuela while “privileged to be witnessing these historical events…”

Shayne Cokerdem and his wife, Diane DePriest, are teachers at Caracas’ Escuela Campo Alegre (ECA) – and have been living in Venezuela with their children for eight months.

They write at a delightful blog, full of fascinating insights into the political, cultural and social life and aspects in Venezuela and, in my opinion, a must for any American planning to travel to Venezuela to live or work there.

Anyway, in the latest blog update one finds some very timely — posted this morning — and insightful views on this hugely significant event, “Hugo Chavez Dies.”

Cokerdem starts with an understatement, “Well, it’s been an interesting day,” and provides some background first. I hope our readers will find it as fascinating as I did.

Background:

Since December 11, Chavez has not been seen or heard from. For the past two months, vague statements were made every day or two about “respiratory deficiency” but no official medical report was ever made public. Any VIP visitors who were permitted to go to the Cuban hospital where Chavez was being treated would make no public comments.

On February 15, a few photos were released that showed a healthy looking Chavez on a hospital bed clutching a newspaper beside two of his daughters. This seemed odd because the Venezuelan government had already reported he had a breathing tube that had been inserted into his trachea and in the photo, there was no tube. As fate would have it, a few days later a tweet was made on Chavez’ account that he was back in Venezuela, having flown back in the secrecy of a pre-dawn flight to the top floor of a military hospital. Yet to this day, no one has ever been permitted to enter or visit. On February 26, even Bolivian president, Evo Morales, was turned away at the hospital.

Anyone who questioned or criticized the secrecy was reminded that the government has been communicating updates on almost a daily basis and that to request anything more was disrespectful of Chavez, his privacy, his family, and the country. With the exception of a few tweets from key opposition figures and a dozen university students chained together demanding verified information, there has been no visible opposition. Then came Guillermo Cochez, the former Panamanian ambassador to the Organization of American States.

Citing “sources inside the Venezuelan government,” Cochez dropped a big one during an interview with a Colombian news channel. On February 27, he claimed he had recently found out that on December 30, Chavez was declared brain dead in a Cuban hospital and had been on a ventilator ever since. We remembered that date because there were dozens of ECA people who insisted Chavez had died that night based on twitter feeds from political cognoscenti. He then went on to say that Chavez died four days ago when his family decided to disconnect him from the artificial respirator. When questioned about his bold statements, he simply said, “If I’m a liar, then prove it.” That caught our attention. It seemed likely the dam would break in the coming days.

And, it finally did.

“Today’s Events” (Yesterday’s):

Early this afternoon, there was a cadena. There’s no translation in English. It’s when the government interrupts every television program for a broadcast. It is somewhat like the Emergency Broadcast System but it is not for just emergencies. Sometimes, there are cadenas for Chavez or another government official to sing a national song, read a story, or do an impromptu speech. Just another one of those cultural differences. Anyhow, today’s cadena was no poetry reading.

It was mid-day. Vice President Maduro looked at the camera and told everyone that a secret plot had been uncovered. The US and Venezuelan opposition had schemed together to infect Chavez with an agent that was to cause his cancer. He added that ultimately, these enemies were responsible for the weak state of “el comandante” who had just taken a turn for the worse according to an announcement last night. Maduro insisted that a scientific commission would prove all of this in the coming weeks. In addition, he reported that two US Air Force attachés had just been caught trying to infiltrate and destabilize the Venezuelan military; each were given 24 hours to leave the country. (Interestingly, at least one of them, Col. David del Mónaco, had been meeting routinely with Venezuelan military because, that’s part of what his job is. We know this because he is part of the ECA community; his twins are at our school, at least they were until today.)

Any of these announcements would have been strange enough. But, to have them all made on the same day and at the same time it felt like a smokescreen designed to distract and shift blame. Sure enough at 4:35 pm, the announcement was made that Chavez had just passed away.

I’ll never forget the scene as I got official word while walking out to the central school plaza this afternoon. I can already tell it will be a flashbulb memory for Venezuelans – as it was for US residents when they heard the news about JFK, or more recently when they learned about 9/11. Regardless of one’s politics here, there was shock in people’s faces this evening. It is understandable. Chavez has been “el comandante” for 14 years now. That is half the lifetime of most Venezuelans. And as recently as yesterday, more than half of the population reported that they believed Chavez would be back in the leadership saddle this spring.

The walk home from school was a bit unnerving for Shayne, who tends to exercise more caution than Diane. He was hoping it wouldn’t turn into “grab a gringo” particularly since the government here just accused the US of poisoning their president and attempting to collapse their military. Shayne’s blue eyes and Justin’s blondish hair don’t exactly camouflage well. Diane, on the other hand, figured that since we live in an anti-Chavez part of town we’d be more likely to witness celebrations. Sure enough, en route we heard a few people engaging in a form of protest behavior from the high-rise rooftops. It is known as “cacerolazos” and consists clanging pots and pans together with the occasional drumming of a spoon.

Finally, “Tonight” (Last Night):

Once home, we began checking some blogs. Facebook was abuzz with local friends exchanging stories, articles and opinions. First-hand accounts of street scenes reported that most of the city was pretty tranquil, although traffic was snarled and cell phone service was overwhelmed. That said, there have been some isolated barrios where hooded bandits took to the streets with weapons, and some stores have been looted. Fortunately, these incidents seem to be few and far between. None of that is affecting us; our section of town is subdued and peaceful.

Dinner conversation was neat. The boys were both asking questions about the accusations made today by the Venezuelan government. They wondered what would happen later this month. We love that boys aged 6 and 8 are becoming increasingly interested in world events. We all talked about what it is like to watch history in the making. According to the Constitution, a new election must be held within 30 days. It remains to be seen if this will actually happen, or if the government can find a way to spin itself out of following the law.

Soon after dinner we got word that the country is declaring several official days of mourning, so school will be closed the rest of the week. It’s like a snow day, except instead of the cold stuff, we’re getting a metaphorical snow job!”

Cokerdem concludes by providing links to other blogs, “pretty well known in the Venezuelan blogosphere … Fascinating stuff, for sure,” and with the assurances: “We have plenty of food, good friends, and an exceptional school community that is really more like an extended family. We promise to stay safe and will post updates as events unfold during this fascinating moment in time.”

CODA:

We do wish them, all Americans in Venezuela and the Venezuelan people well.

Image: Mark III Photonics / Shutterstock.com

  

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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