Published on 9 Jan 2013

Dead or alive? What is the truth about Hugo Chavez?

With the world running out of eccentric leaders Hugo Chavez had or has been one of the last. If I am not sure what tense to write the last sentence in it’s because like much of the country I can’t be entirely sure whether Chavez is even alive.

The paratrooper turned president with the baritone bombast has always lived for the limelight. Even when he was being medivaced to Cuba in recent years for another bout of chemo there would be a reassuring picture of him, bald but smiling. For the last month while he has been closeted away in a Havana hospital there has been nothing.

Not a picture. Not a squeak. Just unconvincing reassurances from the people who rely on Chavez for their future that he is not dead, recovering, through the worst and very much hoping to return to Caracas as soon as his health permits him to retake the reigns of power.

In the United States, where a president’s health is a matter for the public record, we would have had endless briefings from medics in white suits with power point presentations of the tumour’s progress. In Venezuela we don’t even know for sure what kind of cancer the president is suffering from.

So Chavez won’t be coming back home to attend his own inauguration on Thursday. The star guest is absent at his own party and the government has delayed his swearing-in until some undisclosed point in the future, a highly controversial decision that has just been sanctioned by the Chavez-appointed supreme court.

Venezuela thus finds itself in a very strange position. The images of El Comandante are ubiquitous. His chubby face beams out from almost every wall, flutters on giant flags above building sites, adorns T shirts, and can be seen ad nauseam on old TV clips of Chavez, speaking, singing, preaching, hugging, kissing, flirting, praying and eating.

On TV Chavez is alive with a kind of joie de vivre which is a rare event amongst the most populist strongmen. Chavez loves/loved being alive. And whatever you think of his politics there is something infectious about his exuberance. I once  interviewed him in Havana when the subject was the health of another president, his best friend Fidel Castro.

“Was Fidel still alive?” I asked him. Chavez looked at me with sweaty indignation and then let loose the hounds of rhetoric. “Alive? AALIIIVE?” he bellowed. “Fidel is the air we breathe, the grass we are standing on, the birds, the trees, the very earth. Fidel is everywhere.”

He was right, of course. Fidel was indeed alive. Even in his dotage he continues to define Cuba and everyone who lives on that island. Clearly Chavez hopes that some of that Castro immortality will rub off on him in a Havana hospital. While we wait to find out, Venezuela, where people love and loathe the president in equal measure, is in limbo, gaping at a power vacuum and fearful of the future.

In recent months the black market rate for the US dollar has soared. The  country is bitterly divided. The opposition is keeping a low profile for now, afraid of provoking the authorities and their thugs with any demonstrations and hoping discreetly that the Grim Reaper will come to its help.

But even if Chavez were to die and be declared dead beyond reasonable doubt he will continue to enthrall this county for years to come.

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24 reader comments

  1. Gerard Looker says:

    Your obvious bias against Hugo Chavez shone through this report. for example a seriously ill man is described as languishing in a hospital bed; what seemed like genuine and sincere supporters of Chavez referred to as a flash mob: but what really irked was the dismissive reference to Chavez deputy as a former bus driver. As the son of a former Bus Driver I think my elderly father would make a better job of running this country than the former public schoolboys bred to govern currently in charge. Chavez has used oil money to give people homes, free health services and education as opposed to the previous regimes who squandered the Countrys wealth on lavish Miami lifestyles. Chavez has achieved much and received massive support from the people in repeated exemplary free and fair elections (according to the Jimmy Carter Institute) unlike our own government elected withoput any popular support privatising our health and other public services which were never included inTory or Lib Dem manifestos. its a shame channel four news resorts to type of western news media when it comes to Chavez and Venezuela.

  2. Philip Edwards says:

    Matt,

    It was BRILLIANT watching ordinary Venezuelans run rings around you in tonight’s item. All that Yank media coaching went for nothing. Tut tut.
    :-)

    A few Venezuela facts to help you through suburban Washington nights:

    1. REDUCTION OF POVERTY:
    The extreme poverty rate fell from 42% in 1998 to 9.5%. General poverty was also significantly reduced, from 50.5% in 1998 to 33.4% in 2008. Venezuela’s Human Development Index also increased from a 0.69 (medium development) in 1998 to 0.84 (high development) in 2008. Currently, Venezuela ranks 67 out of 179 countries according to the 2008 UNDP report. Venezuela’s Gini coefficient fell to 0.4099, the lowest in the country’s history and in Latin America. In 1998 it was 0.4865.

    2. ACCESS TO EDUCATION:
    In 2005 Venezuela achieved an illiteracy-free territory. 96% of adults and elders can read and write. 99.6% of the population over the age of 15 is now literate. Venezuela spends 7% of its GDP on education, compared to 3.9% in 1998. School enrolment was 6.2 million students in 1998. Now it is 7.5 million students in public and private schools.
    Programmes excluded from the formal education system, show:

    a. Mission Robinson II: 437,171 students, including 81,000 indigenous students, have graduated.

    b. Mission Ribas: 510,585 students have graduated.

    c. Mission Sucre: 571,917 Venezuelans are in the higher education system in 24 career programmes in 334 different municipalities. 30,000 students have graduated from seven programs: education, environmental management, social management of local development, journalism, management, computer science, and agro-food production.

    3. ACCESS TO HEALTH:
    Venezuela invests 4.2% of its GDP in health to guarantee free access to health. Up to 2009, Barrio Adentro has made the following achievements:

    a. 24,884,567 Venezuelans, 88.9% of the population.

    b. 630,491 Venezuelan lives have been saved.

    c. 6,531 health centres, 479 Integral Diagnosis Centres, 543 Integral Rehabilitation Centres, 26 High Technology Centres, 13 popular clinics, 459 popular opticians and 3019 locations offering medical and dental care. Public health policies have reduced the child mortality rate (children under 5 years) to 13.7%. In 1990 this was 25.8%.

    4. SOCIAL SECURITY:
    Unemployment has been reduced by 50% falling from 12% to 6.1% by early 2009.

    In May 2007 the Venezuelan minimum wage became the highest in Latin America (US$372). In addition, workers receive a monthly bonus for food amounting to over US$139. Also, pensions have been increased to the minimum wage.

    5. ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT:
    The Venezuelan economy has experienced 20 consecutive quarters of growth. In 2004 it was 18.3%. The economy has grown by 526.98% compared to 1998. Venezuela has the fourth largest economy in Latin America after Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.

    6. FOOD SOVEREIGNTY:
    Mission Food offers basic foodstuffs at low prices and without intermediaries. This operates through a network of warehouses and stores. In 1998, Venezuela produced 16,272,000 tons of vegetables. By 2008 Venezuela produced 20,174,000 tons of food, a 24% increase.

    7. PUBLIC DEBT:
    The public debt dropped from 73.5% of the GDP in 1998 to 14.4% in 2008, one of the lowest in the world. In 1998, a debt of $3 billion was paid off to the International Monetary Fund and to the World Bank.

    8. INTERNATIONAL RESERVES:
    In 1999 International Reserves amounted to US$14.3 billion. By January 2009 they amounted to US$41.9 billion.

    9. TECHNOLOGY SOVEREIGNTY:
    Before Chavez there was practically no investment in science and technology. Today, 2.69% of Venezuela’s GDP is aimed at science and technology. Now there are Infocentros (centres of information) and the National Technological Literacy Plan provides general access to information and communication technologies.

    On October 29, 2008, Venezuela launched the Simón Bolívar Satellite from the Sichuan Satellite Centre, China. Satellite services are offered to thousands of communities in Venezuela and other Latin American and Caribbean countries, with tele-education and telemedicine programs.

    Venezuela’s technological sovereignty includes nationalization of the National Company of Telephones (CANTV).

    10. ELIMINATION OF GENDER INEQUALITY:
    Women’s participation in Communal Centres is 60%. 4 out of the 5 Public Powers are headed by women. Women’s presence in the National Assembly increased from 10% to 16.5%.

    Now if I can spend a few minutes to unearth these facts, why couldn’t you? After all, that’s your job isn’t it? Aren’t you supposed to bring us facts instead of modular US propaganda? You could also have mentioned the CIA coup that tried and failed to oust Chavez in 2002. Then you could have described open calls by assorted US fascist politicians for Chavez to be assassinated.

    Still, it could have been worse. It could have been Murdoch’s Fox News and Glenn Beck.

    Maybe next time, hey?

  3. mr michael lee says:

    Ref matt frei`s piece on 9th jan.evening news. The throw away remark relating to the possible successor to Chavez as “A bus driver”. was out of order and says much about this correspondent.
    Nye Bevan was a miner, Mr Frei. Think on it.

  4. Richard Irons says:

    This is bizarre. Far from keeping a low profile the right-wing opposition has been running a prominent campaign seeking to have somebody replace Chavez as president, which is a rouse to force new elections.
    Constitutionally, new elections are only allowed if the president becomes “permanently absent”. The opposition is trying to bypass this legal process and it is therefore the opposition which is acting against the constitution.

  5. JOSUNE ARZALLUZ says:

    Venezuela has a president who is in Cuba with the unanimously agreed vote of the National Assembly. The administrative duties are fulfilled by the Vice President Nicolas Maduro. The opposition on the contrary have bypassed the legal process and have forced new elecitons which are only allowed if the president becomes “permanently absent”.

  6. Fiona Edwards says:

    This is post is terrible.

    Firstly it is totally absurd to suggest, as the reporter Matt Frei repeatedly does, that Venezuela is “bitterly” divided. Hugo Chavez was re-elected President by a massive landslide in October.

    The majority of Venezuelans support Chavez because of the enormous social progress his government’s policies have brought over the past 14 years – dramatically reducing poverty, eliminating illiteracy and a massive expansion in access to education and healthcare to name just a few of the achievements. It is the richer sections of society who do not like Chavez because he stands up for the poor and oppressed majority of society, which is not in the interests of the rich.

    And to frame the entire report on the totally insensitive and unfounded suggestion that Chavez is secretly already dead is not serious journalism and reflects a major bias on the part of Matt Frei who seems to want Chavez to die as soon as possible. Can we have some more objective reporting, based on facts not right-wing fantasy, in the future please?

  7. Ann Seuret says:

    As a regular viewer of Channel 4 News whose balanced coverage of domestic matters I respect, I was appalled by the quality of journalism exhibited in Matt Frie’s supposed news report on President Hugo Chavez who is involved in a struggle against cancer. Childish nonsense in , (presumably what the ‘reporter’ supposes to be “clever” ) game playing about whether Chavez is alive or not is reminiscent of the more ridiculous cold-war propaganda antics of the 1980s about whether Soviet President Yuri Andopov was dead for several months before his death was announced.
    The lack of common decency and humanity shown towards President Chavez at this time I found nauseating as I did the derrogatory tone, in which Mr Frie described the Vice-President as a former bus-driver.
    Mr Frei’s personal superority is self evident and, should he be suffering from cancer, or come from a working-class background, this are things which I am sure he would be happy for us to ridicule.
    I am not going to go through the list of misinformation that he propagated in his piece, as I know this will be done by other people but one blatantly stupid remark I need to counter. The result of the October elections shows, without doubt, that President Chavez is not equally loved and loathed in Venezuela. One of the many facts that this excuse for a news report ommitted.

  8. Catriona Goss says:

    Disgracefully biased piece with a complete lack of any humanity or compassion for someone suffering from cancer. A truly awful piece of “journalism”.

    President Chavez has unanimous backing to travel to Cuba to receive treatment. He is legally the President of Venezuela. The Supreme Court, the only body which can interpret the Constitution have confirmed that his swearing-in could be postponed, but this does not change the FACT that he is the President of Venezuela, as voted for in free and fair elections by the majority of Venezuelans.

    The opposition are keeping anything but a “low profile” – desperately seeking to take advantage of the situation to encourage destabilization of the country and calling for actions which are unconstitutional.

    And to refer to the Venezuelan people as “thugs” is truly disgusting.

    Channel 4 has reached a new low with this article.

  9. Ben Folley says:

    It is extraordinary that Channel 4 can accept this propaganda article as serious journalism.

    The idea that Matt Frei can claim Chavez is secretly dead already because the Venezuelan administration is not briefing in the same manner that you might expect a US administration to do is, frankly, ludicrous.

    His claim that the Venezuelan people love and loathe Chavez in equal measure is not borne out by the recent election result which saw Chavez win by a majority of 11%, or 1.5million people.

    It was that scale of victory, immediately accepted by the opposition as a fair result, which is preventing them protesting. Because the public backs Chavez. That and the ruling by the Supreme Court that, under the Constitution, that Chavez’s new term of office begins without him needing to attend a ceremony this week. But instead Frei claims the opposition is not protesting for fear of government-sponsored thugs.

    We should remember the record in terms of thuggery and that rests with the opposition – because it was they who abandoned democracy to launch a military coup in 2002.

    Come on Channel 4, you’re better than this.

    1. vera says:

      Don’t you remember that Chavez attempted two coups and was jailed because of that? So he himself was a coupster. The Venezuelan government has been unclear as to Mr. Chavez’s true possibilities of continuing to govern or not. They twist the law to their liking anyway they please and then say it is “lega.l” Fifty percent of small and medium enterprise has closed its doors since Chavez, workers who are employed tremble at the thought of having their company taken over by the government. I agree with a socialism that builds, not one that destroys.

  10. Tony Goss says:

    This is a disgraceful piece of US style propaganda masquerading as journalism. The country is bitterly divided eh? Lets ignore the election results for Chavez and more recently for provincial governors then – it doesnt fit the story eh? The people “love and loathe” Chavez in equal measure eh? Again, it doesnt fit with the facts but Matt clearly likes the idea of journalistic licence…..

  11. Jim Goodall says:

    If this was a British leader of any party (Tory, Labour or the Libdems) would Matt Frie “be hoping discreetly for the grim reaper”. Of course not, and any reporter that wishes that could only be described as bordering on beng totally inhuman themselves.
    I doubt very much that the country is divided to the extent that Matt Frie would have us believe, afterall the people of Venezuela have consistently voted for Chavez for the past 14 years.

  12. Hunter says:

    My Colombian friends are praying for the grim reaper. Chavez is not liked in Colombia, except for the FARC and ELN guerillas. He threatened invasion several times during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe. Yes, loots of Colombians I know are praying for the grim reaper to visit “Cara de Chancho”

  13. Joe Cottrell-Bouce says:

    “The opposition is keeping a low profile for now, afraid of provoking the authorities and their thugs with any demonstrations ”
    I’m sorry is this Fox News?

  14. Slob says:

    David Aaronovitch (Times Jan 10) surmises President Hugo Chávez could soon be quote “…at an angle in a quilted box in some flower-strewn cathedral with mourners filing past.” May Venezuelan positivists such as I in return suggest a coffin for David should be crafted out of soon to be aplenty cheap Die-Back-Ash (of course, not immediately – Yahweh forfend!) with ashen David feotus-like (as he may so easily be found in his last place of media disrepute with M&S give-a-way biro irremovable from a rigor mortis clasp) be stuffed sympathetically into a vitriolic newsprints of his authorship (poor photocopies) lined little casket.

  15. Gail Warden says:

    What a spiteful piece of gloating this piece is. Chavez can be sworn in at a later date as Matt Frei no doubt knows if he’s read the constitution. Chavez won, get over it. And report accordingly.

  16. Alexander Milne says:

    What a biased and partisan piece, and what an insult to Venezuela and Cuba. If there’s uncertainty around Chavez’s health, that’s because cancer is by nature unpredictable. Just because a country doesn’t follow the Western example of “24/7” news bulletins coverage, doesn’t make it an autocracy. The Venezuelan private media criticism of Chavez is unending; how obtuse not to mention it, even occasionally.

    As for the penultimate paragraph mention of “provoking the authorities and their thugs”, was it Chavez who orchestrated the police suppression of Caracazo riots of 1989 in which 3,000+ died? What about the 2002 coup attempt by the right, including media manipulation of events and regular attacks on Chavez’s person, often of a racist tinge?

    As for the “populism” gibe, forgive me but I thought the point of politicians is to serve the populace. Chavez has won all but one of the referenda and all of the elections in which he participated, and always by greater than 50% of the vote, and the elections have received a clean bill of health from international observers.

    Yet still you churn out the “Fox News-lite” insults to the intelligence. Shame on you, Channel 4.

    Alexander Milne (disappointed viewer)

  17. Gerald Payne says:

    Funny things you include in this piece. I was trying to imagine you writing something similar about Obama
    “His well scrubbed face beaming down” for instance
    or
    “His face can be seen ad nauseum on TV”

    or “he will continue to enthrall…” such loaded phraseology and kept for a US official enemy of course not to be used by a spokesperson for power such as yourself with regard to the US emperor

  18. Terry Hoad says:

    Leaving aside the unfortunate tone of so much of this article (‘eccentric leaders’, ‘baritone bombast’, ‘chubby face’, ‘seen ad nauseam’, ‘populist strongmen’, etc), there needs to be some correction of the misinformation in it.

    Venezuela is not ‘in limbo’. Judges on the country’s Supreme Court have unanimously decided on the constitutional issues around Hugo Chavez’s taking up his next period of office, his government remains in place and the Vice President has temporarily assumed some of the Presidential duties.

    Given the opposition’s conspicuous activities in the Venezuelan National Assembly and in international bodies such as the Organization of American States, ‘keeping a low profile’ is a strange term to choose to describe its stance.

    It may be noted, however, that the Secretary General of the OAS has issued a statement saying
    ‘The issue [of the inauguation of the Presiden] has been resolved by the three branches of government of Venezuela: it was presented by the executive, considered by the legislature and decided by the judiciary. The possibilities have been exhausted and therefore the process that will take place in that country is that which has been decided by the three powers’,
    and that the OAS
    ‘fully respects, how could it be otherwise, the decision of the constitutional powers of Venezuela’
    in this matter’.

  19. William Mora says:

    The program stated in a point that “Venezuela …is in limbo, gaping at a power vacuum and fearful of the future. …The opposition is keeping a low profile for now, afraid of provoking the authorities and their thugs with any demonstrations and hoping discreetly that the Grim Reaper will come to its help.” but you must know that Venezuela is not in limbo.

    The president is Hugo Chavez who is in Cuba as unanimously agreed by the National Assembly. Chavez remains the legal president but many of his administrative duties have been passed on to the Vice President Nicolas Maduro as the Constitution predetermine in cases like this.

    A second outrageous element is the misrepresentation that every person that support Chavez is by default a violent person, a criminal, as the pejorative of “thugs” try to bring about.

    Third element is the right-wing opposition has been running a prominent campaign in the National Assembly and internationally seeking to have somebody replace Chavez as president, that is far from keeping a low profile. Constitutionally, new elections are only allowed if the president becomes “permanently absent”. The opposition is trying to bypass this legal process and it is therefore the right-wing opposition which is acting against the constitution

  20. Terry Brough says:

    Matt Frei – the voice of reason! I don’t think! The tone of his comments and the vicious innuendos about a man fighting for his life are truly reminiscent of classic, gutter press journos.
    Frei’s credibility, if he ever had any, is well and truly fried!

    Venezuela is not in limbo as Frei asserts. It has a president who is in Cuba as unanimously agreed by the National Assembly in a vote. He remains the legal president but many of his administrative duties have been passed on to the Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

    And far from keeping a low profile the right-wing opposition has been running a prominent campaign in the National Assembly and internationally (in the OAS etc) seeking to have somebody replace Chavez as president, which is a rouse to force new elections. Constitutionally, new elections are only allowed if the president becomes “permanently absent”. The opposition is trying to bypass this legal process and it is therefore the right-wing opposition which is acting against the constitution.

    As for Hugo Chavez being loved and loathed equally, Frei really exposes his contempt for the truth. Hugo Chavez was re-elected with majorities, western politicians can only dream about!
    Viva Venezuela! Viva Chavez!

  21. philip ross says:

    Not on of Matt Frei’s best piece, I guess he is the US correspondent and sees Venezeula from their blinkered perspective. Chavez isn’t popular with the US establishment mainly because instead of privatising the nations oil wealth and enriching foreign companies he has instead set it up as a social enterprise and instead spends the profit on social programmes. For this crime he is described as ‘eccentric’.

    Yet now the poor man has cancer and can’t make his inaugration, despite having won a huge majority in the recent elections. Attempts to call the president a dictator all seem to have failed (as he keeps winning elections), so instead it seems that he is now a rule-breaker and illegitimate in another way.

    But this is what the Americans seem to think, perhaps Mr Frei should return to europe to get his perspective back

  22. Nicolas Miro says:

    It is truly sad to see people support such a grotesque and hypocritical person. If you think Chavez won the elections fairly then you surely have not lived in Venezuela in the past decade. If you actually think the poverty in Venezuela is at 9% PLEASE come live here and see for yourself. Chavez and his government are like the catholic church, all they have is slogans but no actions. Educate yourselves and free yourselves from ignorance. It is very insulting to Venezuelans.

  23. vladimir puttoni says:

    i hope chavez gets well ,i do really like the baffun

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