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When Gabriel García Márquez met Hugo Chávez

Hugo Chávez speaks to people gathered at the Plaza Caracas in February 1998 Photo: Jorge Santo/AP/Press Association Images

Translation: Rob Orchard and Lluis Vilasori

It was sunset when President Carlos Andrés Pérez [of Venezuela] came down from the plane that had brought him from Davos in Switzerland and he was surprised to see his minister of defence, General Fernando Ochoa Antich, waiting for him on the runway. “What’s happening?” Pérez asked him, intrigued. Antich reassured him so thoroughly about the situation that the president did not go to the Miraflores Palace [the government headquarters] but to La Casona, the presidential residence. He had just fallen asleep when the same defence minister woke him up by telephone to inform him of a military uprising in Maracay [a city an hour-and-a-half’s drive outside of Caracas]. Pérez had only just arrived in Miraflores when the first artillery shells started to explode.

It was Tuesday 4th February 1992. Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías, a man who made a sacramental cult out of historical dates, directed the assault from his makeshift command post in the Museo Histórico de La Planicie. The president understood that his only recourse was popular support and went to the Venevision studios to speak to the country. Twelve hours later the military coup had failed. Chávez surrendered, on condition that he too would be allowed to address the people on television.

Chávez’s public concession was the first speech of the electoral campaign that would lead him to the presidency of the republic less than nine years later”

The young Creole colonel, with his paratrooper’s beret and his way with words, assumed responsibility for the movement. His speech was a political triumph. He served two years in prison before being pardoned by President Rafael Caldera. Many of his supporters and a fair few of his enemies believe that Chávez’s public concession was the first speech of the electoral campaign that would lead him to the presidency of the republic less than nine years later.

President Hugo Chávez Frías told me this story in the Venezuelan Air Force plane that took us from Havana to Caracas two weeks ago, when he was less than 15 days from taking his seat as constitutional president of Venezuela, elected by popular vote. We had been introduced three days earlier in Havana, during his meeting with Presidents Castro and Pastrana [of Colombia], and the first thing that struck me was the power of his reinforced concrete body. He had an immediate warmth and the Creole grace of a pure Venezuelan. We had both tried to see one another again, but it had not been possible, so we travelled to Caracas together so we could discuss his life and his miracles on the plane.


Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez in 1997. Hamilton/AP/Press Association Images

It was a good experience for a reporter at rest. As he told me about his life I began to discover a personality that did not correspond at all with the image of a despot which we had built up through the media. It was another Chávez. Which of the two was real?

The strong argument against him during the campaign was his recent past as a conspirator and plotter of coups. But the history of Venezuela has assimilated more than a few such characters over the years. They start with Romulo Betancourt, remembered rightly or wrongly as the father of Venezuelan democracy, who brought down Isaías Medina Angarita, a former military democrat who had tried to purge his country of the 36-year rule of Juan Vicente Gómez. His successor, the novelist Rómulo Gallegos, was brought down by General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who would remain in power in Caracas for almost 11 years. He, in turn, was overthrown by a whole generation of young democrats who were able to usher in the longest period of elected presidents to date.

How to succeed in life

Chávez speaks to the press after his surrender and arrest in February 1992 Photo: Ali Gomez/AP/Press Association Images

Chávez speaks to the press after his surrender and arrest in February 1992 Photo: Ali Gomez/AP/Press Association Images

The February coup seems to be the only thing that ever went wrong for Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías. Nevertheless, he looked on it positively as a providential setback. It is his way of understanding the good luck, intelligence, intuition, cunning, or whatever might be the magical breeze that that has governed his actions since he came into the world in Sabaneta, in the state of Barinas on 28th July 1954, under the sign of power: Leo. Chávez, a devout Catholic, attributes his guiding fates to the 100-year-old devotional scapular he has carried since he was a child, inherited from his maternal great-grandfather, Colonel Pedro Pérez Delgado, one of his guiding heroes.

His parents scraped by on primary school teachers’ salaries, and from the age of nine he had to help them by selling sweets and fruits from a cart. Sometimes he went by donkey to visit his maternal grandmother in Los Rastrojos, a neighbouring town that seemed like a city to them because it had a small electrical plant which gave two hours of light at nightfall and a midwife who had welcomed Chávez and his four brothers into the world. His mother wanted him to be a priest, but he only made it as far as altar boy and he used to play the bells with such grace that everybody recognised his ringing. “That’s Hugo playing,” they would say. Among his mother’s books he found an encyclopedia, whose first chapter immediately seduced him: ‘How to succeed in life’.

The chapter comprised a list of options, and he tried almost all of them. As a painter he stood in awe before the works of Michelangelo and won the first prize in a regional exhibition at the age of 12. As a musician he made himself indispensable at birthdays and serenades with his mastery of the cuatro guitar and his pleasant singing voice. As a baseball player he became a first-class catcher. The military option was not on the list, nor would it have occurred to him, until he was told that the best way to get into the big leagues was to enter the military academy at Barinas. It must have been another miracle of the scapular, because on that day the Andrés Bello plan began, which allowed graduates of military schools to be able to rise to the highest academic levels.

He studied political science, history and Marxism-Leninism. He loved to study the life and work of Bolívar, whose proclamations he learned by heart. But his first conscious conflict with real politics came with the death of former Chilean president Salvador Allende in September 1973 [Allende, the first democratically elected Marxist president in South America, committed suicide when the military rose against him]. Chávez did not understand. Why, if the Chileans elected Allende, was the Chilean military now mounting a coup? Shortly afterwards, the captain of his company assigned him the task of watching over one of the children of José Vicente Rangel, who was believed to be a communist. “What goes around comes around,” Chávez tells me with a burst of laughter. “Now his dad is my chancellor.” More ironic still is that when Chávez graduated he received his sword from the president that he would try to bring down 20 years later: Carlos Andrés Pérez.

As president, Hugo Chavez receives honours in Guasdualito, Venezuela, in February 1999. Photo: Pedro Lara/AP/Press Association Images

As president, Hugo Chavez receives honours in Guasdualito, Venezuela, in February 1999. Photo: Pedro Lara/AP/Press Association Images

“What’s more,” I said, “you were about to kill him.” “Not at all,” protested Chávez. “The idea was to install a constituent assembly and return to barracks.” From the first moment I realised he was a natural storyteller. He was a product of Venezuelan popular culture, which is creative and joyful. He has a great sense of timing and an almost supernatural memory, which allows him to recite poems by Neruda and Whitman, and whole pages of [Venezuelan novelist and president] Romulo Gallegos.

At a young age he discovered by chance that his great-grandfather was not some fairy tale murderer, as his mother said, but a legendary warrior of the times of Juan Vicente Gómez [the military strongman leader of Venezuela from 1908 to 1935]. Such was Chávez’s enthusiasm that he decided to write a book to purify the man’s memory. He scoured archives and military libraries, and went from town to town wearing a historian’s backpack to reconstruct the travels of his great-grandfather through the testimony of those who survived him. It was around this time that he added his great-grandfather to the altar of his heroes and started wearing the protective scapular which had once been his.

Chávez had just fallen asleep when he heard piercing screams from the room next door. ‘The soldiers were beating the prisoners with baseball bats wrapped in rags’”

One day he accidentally crossed the border at the Arauca bridge, and the Colombian captain who checked his backpack found evidence to accuse him of being a spy: he had a camera, a tape recorder, secret papers, photos of the region, a military map covered in drawings and two army regulation pistols. His identity documents, as you would expect from a spy, could be false. The discussion went on for several hours in an office where the only picture was a portrait of Bolívar on horseback. “I was almost ready to give in,” Chávez told me, “because the more I explained the less he understood.” Until the saving phrase came to him: “Look what life is, captain: less than a century ago we were part of the same army, and this guy looking down at us from this picture was the boss of both of us. How I can be a spy?” The captain, moved, began to enthuse about Greater Colombia, and the two ended the night drinking beer from both countries in a cantina in Arauca. The next morning, with a shared headache, the captain gave Chávez back his historian’s kit and sent him on his way with a hug in the middle of the international bridge.

“It was at this time that I got the concrete idea that something was wrong in Venezuela,” said Chávez. He had been sent to the east as commander of a squad of 13 soldiers and a communications team to liquidate the last remaining guerrilla bastions. On one night of heavy rain, an intelligence colonel asked him for shelter. The colonel had a squad of soldiers and some suspected guerrillas that he had just captured, who were green-faced and painfully thin. At about ten o’clock in the evening, when Chávez had just fallen asleep, he heard piercing screams from the room next door. “The soldiers were beating their prisoners with baseball bats wrapped in rags so they didn’t leave marks,” said Chávez. Outraged, he demanded that the colonel should hand over his prisoners or leave, as he could not accept that anyone should be tortured under his command. “The next day I was threatened with a court martial for disobedience,” recalled Chávez, “but they just kept me under observation for a while.”

A few days later he had an experience that surpassed the others. He was buying meat for his troops when a military helicopter landed in the courtyard of the barracks with a cargo of soldiers who had been badly wounded in a guerrilla ambush. Chávez carried a soldier in his arms who had several bullet wounds in his body. “Don’t let me die, lieutenant,” said the soldier, terrified. Chávez only just managed to get him into a car. Seven others died. That night, sleepless in his hammock, Chávez asked himself, “Why am I here? On one side peasants dressed as soldiers are torturing guerrilla peasants and on the other side guerrilla peasants are killing peasants dressed in green. At this point, with the war officially over, there is no sense in anyone firing a shot at anybody.”

“It was there that I fell into my first existential conflict,” he concluded on the plane to Caracas.

The next day he awoke convinced that his destiny was to found a movement. He did so at the age of 23, under the straightforward name of the Venezuelan People’s Bolívarian Army. Its founding members: five soldiers and him, with his second lieutenant’s rank. “With what aim?” I asked him. Very simple, he said: “With the aim of being ready in case something happens.” A year later, as a paratroop officer in the armored battalion of Maracay, he began plotting in earnest. But he explained to me that he used the word “conspiracy” only in its figurative sense of bringing together the willing in pursuit of a common duty.

A captain for our times

That was the situation on 17th December 1982 when an unexpected event occurred that Chávez believes was decisive in his life. He was already captain in the second regiment of paratroopers, and an assistant intelligence officer. When he least expected it, the regimental commander, Angel Manrique, commissioned him to deliver a speech before 1,200 men of all ranks.

At one in the afternoon, the battalion had assembled on the football field, and the master of ceremonies introduced Chávez. “And the speech?” the regimental commander asked him, as he saw him mount the rostrum without any paper in his hand. “I have no written speech,” Chávez told him. And he began to improvise.

You are wrong, commander.  Chávez is no politician. He is a captain for our times, and when you hear what he said in his speech, you piss in your pants”

It was a fairly short speech, inspired by Bolívar and [Cuban poet] Martí, but with a personal take on the pressurised and unjust state of Latin America 200 years after independence. The officers, supporters and non-supporters alike, listened to him impassively. Among them were captains Felipe Acosta Carle and Jesús Urdaneta Hernández, who were sympathetic to his movement. The commander of the garrison, very upset, received Chávez after his speech with a rebuke which could be heard by everyone.

“Chávez, you sound like a politician.”

“Understood,” Chávez replied.

Felipe Acosta, two metres tall and indomitable, went and stood in front of the commander, and told him: “You are wrong, commander. Chávez is no politician. He is a captain for our times, and when you hear what he said in his speech, you piss in your pants.”

Colonel Manrique called the soldiers to attention and said, “I want you to know that what was said by Captain Chávez was authorised by me. I gave the order to him to give that speech and everything he said, even though he didn’t bring it in writing, he had told me yesterday.” He paused for effect, and concluded with a final order: “This does not leave here!”

At the end of the event, Chávez went jogging with captains Felipe Acosta and Jesús Urdaneta to the Samán del Guere [a centuries-old native tree, considered a national treasure], about ten kilometres away, where they repeated the solemn oath of Simón Bolívar at Monte Aventino in Rome. “In the end I made a change to the oath,” said Chávez. Instead of: “When we have broken the chains that oppress us by the will of Spanish power,” they said: “Until we break the chains that oppress us and oppress the people by the will of the powerful.”

Hugo Chávez waves to the crowd after announcing his candidacy for the presidency of Venezuela in July 1997. Photo: Jose Caruci/AP/Press Association Images

Hugo Chávez waves to the crowd after announcing his candidacy for the presidency of Venezuela in July 1997. Photo: Jose Caruci/AP/Press Association Images

Since then, all the officers that joined the underground movement had to take that oath. The last time was during the election campaign in front of a hundred thousand people. For years clandestine meetings of ever-greater numbers took place, including military representatives from around the country. “The meetings would take place over two days in hidden places, where we would study the situation in the country, conduct analysis and make contacts with civilian groups and friends.”

“In ten years,” Chávez told me, “we had five conferences without being discovered.”

At this point of the conversation, the president gave a malicious laugh, and revealed something with a sinister grin: “We have always said that there were three of us at first. But now we can say that we actually had a fourth man, whose identity we always hid in order to protect him, who was not discovered on 4th February, who remained active in the army and attained the rank of colonel. But we are in 1999 and we can now reveal that the fourth man is here with us on this plane.” He pointed his finger at a man sat separately in a nearby armchair and said: “It was Colonel Badull!”

“Stop this shit, whatever it is!”

In accordance with the idea that the commander Chávez has of his life, the culminating event was El Caracazo, the popular uprising that devastated Caracas. He used to say: “Napoleon said that a battle is decided in a second of strategic inspiration.” From that thought, Chávez developed three concepts: one, the historical hour. The other, the strategic minute. And finally, the tactical second.

“We were concerned because we did not want to leave the army,” said Chávez. “We had formed a movement, but it was not clear for what.” However, the real drama was that what was going to happen actually happened and they were not prepared. “In other words,” Chávez concluded, “we were taken by surprise by the strategic minute.”

He was referring, of course, to the popular uprising of 27th February 1989: El Caracazo. No one was more surprised at the event than Chávez himself. Carlos Andrés Pérez had just taken up his presidency after a landslide win and it was inconceivable that something so serious would happen after just 20 days. “So I’m heading to college to work on my postgraduate degree on the night of the 27th, and I go into Tiuna Fort looking for a friend who could lend me some petrol to get home,” Chávez told me just a few minutes before landing in Caracas. “Then I see that the troops have been called out, and I ask a colonel, ‘Where are all these  soldiers  going? Why did they call out the logistics core who aren’t trained for combat, let alone street combat?’ These recruits were scared by their own rifles. So I ask the colonel, ‘Where is this pile of soldiers going?’ And the colonel says: ‘To the street, to the street. The order that was given was to go out and stop this shit, whatever it is, so there we go.’ ‘My God, what sort of order is that?’ ‘Well, Chávez,’ the colonel answers, ‘the order is to stop this shit, whatever it is.’ So I say, ‘But colonel, you can imagine what will happen.’ And he says ‘Well Chávez, it’s an order and there’s nothing to be done about it. It’s in the hands of God now.’”

Rioters during the ‘El Caracazo’ events of February 1989 in Caracas, which took Chavez completely by surprise. Photo: DPA/Press Association Images

Rioters during the ‘El Caracazo’ events of February 1989 in Caracas,
which took Chavez completely by surprise. Photo: DPA/Press Association Images

Chávez says he had a fever at the time due to an attack of measles, and when he turned on his car he saw a little soldier who came running with his helmet off, his rifle dangling and his ammunition scattered. “I stopped and called to him,” said Chávez. “And he got in, nervous, sweating, a little boy of 18. And I asked him ‘Where are you going, running like that?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘the fact is that my group left me – and there goes my lieutenant in the truck! Get me out of here, sir, get me out of here.’ I reached the truck and asked the man in charge: ‘Where are you going?’ And he said ‘I know nothing. Nobody knows anything, just imagine!’” Chávez took a breath and almost screamed, suffocating at the anguish of that terrible night. “You know, if you send scared soldiers into the street with a rifle and 500 cartridges, they will waste it all. They were sweeping the streets with bullets, they were sweeping the hills and the working-class districts. It was a disaster! There were thousands of deaths, including Felipe Acosta Carle. And instinct tells me that he was killed on purpose,” says Chávez. “It was the minute we had waited for, the minute to act.” No sooner said than done: from that moment he started planning the coup which was to fail three years later.

The plane landed in Caracas at three o’clock in the morning. Through the window I saw the swamp of lights of this unforgettable city where I lived for three years that were crucial for Venezuela and also for my own life. The president said goodbye with his Caribbean hug and an implicit invitation: “We will see one another here on 2nd February.” As he walked away between his decorated military escorts and original friends and co-plotters, it struck me that I had travelled and talked with gusto with two opposing men. One to whom luck had offered the opportunity to save his country. And the other, an illusionist, who could go down in history as just one more despot.

This article was originally published in Cambio Colombia magazine in February 1999 under the title: ‘El enigma de los dos Chávez’. Read the original piece in Spanish here

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