Reflecting on Chavez's recent death eight months after visiting Venezuela, in the time spent back in the UK my sympathies and opinion of the country, its people and their comandante have felt the nostalgic breath of time, my experiences sweetened through distance and fuzzy memories. Travelling in another country as a young white European, wanting to delve into the actions and thoughts of Venezuelanos, I encountered difficulties in bridging the gap between the people and places being visited as an interested outsider and the mundane and harsh realities of everyday life that you find so intriguing and foreign compared to your own.
The majority of encounters and acquaintances made in Venezuela were dictated by the places I stayed and visited. This is a rather unsurprising observation but revisiting the people I met and under what circumstances forces a self-reflection on the attitudes to Chavez I had before visiting Venezuela, whilst in Venezuela and returning home coinciding with the deterioration of his life. It is very difficult to visit a new country with a fresh state of mind, to rid away with all pre-conceptions, attempting not to fall into comparisons with other countries, cultures and things you may have read. This does not entail a misconception or misunderstanding of socio-historical processes but to experience as freshly and open-mindedly as possible the undercurrents that weave through society that are so often hidden behind the invisible wall between tourist and native, outsider and insider.
During the month I spent in Venezuela, traveling East from Caracas to Venezuela's "long finger' that almost touches Trinidad, the most common form of accommodation were hostels, known as posadas. For the persons who owned these businesses, as proprietors and the bourgeoisie, Chavez was, to put mildly, not to their taste. One European lady, owner of a large 10 bed hostel with short silver hair, a small black wristwatch and glasses that perched resolutely on the end of her nose, was at first dismayed at the milk situation in Venezuela, leading on to lamenting the lack of options beyond two types of cheese; with her partner presenting Venezuela as "el Cuba segundo', the second Cuba. Another posada owner, who had dropped in to collect the weekly earnings, offered me a lift to the nearby town to catch the bus further East. The air conditioned 4x4 formed a cloud of dust as it swerved up the mountainside to an apartment block where we picked up his young son who had been to private Maths lessons, somewhat questioning my desires to visit Venezuela. "You are young! Why come here?' Having moved to Venezuela from Chile with his energy-business minded father, the country seemed to be no more than a limp body from which they could leech, with disregard for the common man and their barbarity. Another lamented Chavez's buying of votes during the election. Another criticised him of killing the cows, almost personally.
Spending time in these environments with these people whose lives have not improved under Chavez in the last 14 years and are visibly upset is challenging in not wanting to question their experiences, finding fault in their arguments and asking them what about other people's lives and futures in the last 14 years? Your life may not have developed or change as you had once hoped, but for millions of others the opportunity and recognition that Chavez has inputted not only in the constitution and in the concrete structures of cities and villages but in the hearts and souls of a religious and devout nation. Even sowing a seed of hope in the consciousness of the majority of Venezuelan's has been a historic achievement, liberating from the cultural, economic and political dominance of imperialism, building a future Venezuela that contains the aspirations and dreams of the people, where communities represent themselves, not worlds and environments that are constructed without consent, without negotiation and without basic respect and dignity of life and pride.
The majority of media coverage of Chavez in the West is well known to be inaccurate, misleading and at times entirely daydreamed. Some media sites have picked up on a piece on the reaction of the oil market to Chavez's death by Association Press business commentator Pamela Sampson who argued:
"Chavez invested Venezuela's oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. But those gains were meagre compared with the spectacular construction projects that oil riches spurred in glittering Middle Eastern cities, including the world's tallest building in Dubai and plans for branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums in Abu Dhabi."
How dare he build schools, hospitals and food markets, taking away our power to construct our dreams in phallic shapes protruding towards the sky to offer unsurpassed views over our dominion. Whilst Ms Sampson's criticism of Chavez's policies is one of the more frank approvals of wealth inequality and elite sycophancy, more subtle media references have marked Chavez out as a threat to freedom and prosperity, labelled a dictator, authoritarian and despot, strangling the rights of the people. In fact, as we have seen over the last few days in Caracas and Venezuela, there exists a participatory and engaging citizenry that Chavez has energised to realise their potential and time is now; putting shame to civic engagement and political attitudes floundering in a country over the Gulf that is the main labeller of "Chavez the dictator', the United States.
In the conversations with the taxi drivers, the people selling peanuts and popcorn on the street, the kids playing baseball with a stick and a stone in the streets, the children who now have the opportunity to go to school for free, for the normal guys and the normal girls, for the outsiders and the down-and-outs and the excluded ones, there was only one man who had even attempted to stand up and fight for a nation and state that was run of the people, by the people and for the people, instigating a social introspection that upholds the Bolivarian tradition of the America's new birth after European colonialism that had been soured through United States backed imperialism. For them there was only Chavez. "Mi Corazon!', my heart!
We are often made aware of Chavez's polarising nature and raises questions on unequivocally praising and reinforcing the positive aspects of changes in Venezuela under the crushing weight of Western media bias. Observing and understanding the things that have gone wrong and there is much to do with many problems endemic and rooted in society, but we need to move on from defending to finding solutions to the problems that have not been soothed or healed; mass poverty still exists in Venezuela, the revolution is yet to touch to most excluded, balance racial inequality and reduce oil-reliance to name just a few. Chavez's vision was of sovereignty and independence but with solidaristic ties stretching the Pan-American highway, across the seas to Africa, Europe and through the Panama-canal to Asia; offering out the mulatto, black and white hand of Venezuela. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of Venezuela's history is long but bends toward solidarity, peace, equality and compassion that before Chavez had been missing for too long.