BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela — Upon receiving the news of Hugo Chavez’s death, I suddenly felt like an orphan. I immediately called my daughter in Virginia, as I knew she would understand. Several years ago when we came to live in the United States for her senior year of high school, Maia would tell me: “I miss papa so much. And, I miss Chavez. I miss hearing his voice on TV as I go to sleep. I felt so safe. As though nothing could happen to me, nothing could happen to Venezuela.”
Chavez’s strong and powerful arms held us to his heart like a man defending his most vulnerable child against a raging storm. He believed in us. He told us stories and sang us songs and reminded us of our unique and dignified history. He affirmed and upheld our best qualities, he told us that we were as lovely as the stars, as bright the sun, as free as the wind, as deep as the ocean and as powerful as all the forces of the universe.
And now, he is gone. When I took to the streets, like millions of other Venezuelans, to embrace strangers and cry in their arms, I found that we had grown up. In his two decades on the Venezuelan public scene and 14 years at the helm, Chavez had given the most precious gift a surrogate parent can offer: the gift of adulthood. Let there be no doubt, the Venezuelan people have come of age. Chavez is gone, but this is what resonates on every street and every plaza today: Yo soy Chavez. I am Chavez. I am the leader, the dreamer, the visionary, the teacher, the defender of justice, the weaver of another world that is possible.
That phrase brought me back to 2005, when I was visiting a nun on a hillside barrio in Caracas, one of those of thousands of barrios where poor Venezuelans had been relegated like unwanted trash. No water, no sewage, no schools, no streets. Her name was Begonia, and she was telling me how she had walked for hours to see Chavez pass by. When teased by other nuns for being a Chavista she said: “No, I’m not a Chavista, it’s that Chavez is a ‘Begonista.’ He believes in all the things I have held dear for decades,” she was saying, “the dignity of the poor, the right of the blind to see and those in chains to be freed.”
Two days after I heard Begonia’s story, Chavez himself invited me to talk to him, along with Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the campaign to close the School of the Americas (SOA) in Ft. Benning, GA, a notorious training site for Latin American military officers who have gone on to carry out atrocities against their own peoples. Chavez had heard us speak on TV about the grassroots movement to close the SOA and wanted to learn more. Thus, I found myself in the presidential office with a man noted for his long discourses, who happened to be the best listener I have ever encountered. Chavez was fascinated by Roy’s willingness to go to jail for his convictions and enthralled by my Venezuelan-accented Spanish and my decision to raise my kids in a barrio. He asked about each of my children’s interests, and made sure that he spelled their names correctly as he signed a poster for each.
Oh, and he ordered Venezuelan troops to stop training at the SOA — defiantly opening the door for five other countries to follow suit.
That’s who Chavez was. Deeply personal, celebratory, affectionate and willing to muscle his way to the farthest limb to take a stand for justice, indifferent to the consequences. That powerful muscling was what had turned me off to him at first. Having spent a lifetime taking a stand for peace, I couldn’t fathom looking to a military man for leadership, much less for inspiration. It took family and neighbors to change my thinking: “Look,” they would say. “Chavez is like the pilot at the helm of a boat. We’re in that boat, and we’re going upstream (i.e., against the neoliberal tide). Not downstream. Who do you want at the helm? A polite weakling? Or someone with muscles?”
Fourteen years later, Chavez had guided that boat so powerfully and masterfully that not only are other boats following, but his power was so great, he seems to have literally reversed the river’s current. We’re floating downstream, on a river of independence, sovereignty, dignity. Latin American unity, in a nation that has the smallest gap between rich and poor in South America, a nation whose college enrollment rivals several European countries, a nation whose oil now funds schools and hospitals instead of personal bank accounts in Miami.
Fourteen years ago, my barrio neighbors didn’t dream of going to college, much less becoming doctors in their communities. They could barely fit in their tin or mud homes, much less envision living in a spacious three-bedroom house with indoor bathrooms that cost almost nothing. Fourteen years ago, only those on the wealthy east side of my city felt they were citizens. Now we know we all are.
After Chavez first announced his cancer almost two years ago, I awoke after another sleepless night and listened again and again to his speech. He referred to a song by our beloved singer/songwriter Ali Primera, who also died too young. Chavez repeated the lines: Hay semerucos alla en el cerro y una canto hermoso para cantar (there are cherry trees on the hillside and a lovely song to sing). So much beauty around us, so much to do. As someone who spends every free hour planting trees on a mountain and singing with children, that felt like a personal mandate.
Actually, I do believe this is Chavez’s true mandate: Embrace your passion, and then share it with others. If you can play the guitar, teach a kid to strum. If you love basketball, shoot hoops with a teen. If you can fix a bike, teach the skill to an unemployed friend. If you have oil, share it with those who can’t afford it, if you have doctors, send them where there are none. Celebrate your beauty, your history, your dignity, and honor those qualities in others — as family, as neighbors, as nations, as global citizens.
In Venezuela, our sadness is deeper than Lake Titicaca, colder than Patagonia, larger than the Amazonia and harsher than the Atacama Desert. But, we also know that together, as Venezuelans, as Americans and Caribeños, we are invincible.
That is Chavez’s legacy.
Lisa Sullivan is a former Maryknoll lay missionary who has lived in Venezuela for more than 20 years. She is the Latin American program director for the School of the Americas Watch.