Paul Greenberg

What? Do even Latin American caudillos die? Apparently, according to the latest and last medical bulletin on the health (or lack thereof) of Hugo Chavez, perpetually re-electable president of Venezuela.

No doubt many Venezuelans are grieving at the news that he has proven mortal.

It ought to be quite a wake or celebration, depending on which Venezuelans are observing the occasion. No doubt those of both persuasions will be sincere, as many Russians mourned the death of their generalissimo when Stalin left this vale of tears he had done so much to make even tearier. While others breathed a (very) quiet sigh of relief, mindful that the secret police were still watching. Two news items may exemplify the gulf that Hugo Chavez, always a polarizing figure, leaves behind:

-- "I feel a sorrow so big I can't speak," said Yamilina Barrios, a 39-year-old clerk who works in the Ministry of Industry, her face covered in tears. "He was the best this country had," she said, disconsolately weeping. "I adore him.''

Wherever there are despots on the rise, there will be those swept away by their admiration for El Jefe and the New Order he promises. They may not notice the shuttered newspapers, the mobs ready to do his bidding. Anybody who protests just doesn't understand that, to make an omelet, you have to break eggs. Maybe a lot of them.

-- Near the Supreme Court building in Caracas, a group of student protesters had been demonstrating for a week, demanding that the government be more open about the state of the president's health. As the news of his death spread, a group of masked, helmeted men drove by. Brandishing pistols, they stopped long enough to attack the students and break up their encampment. Then they went roaring off without identifying themselves. Wherever there are dictatorships in the making, there are storm troopers.

That mob scene was all too typical of the intimidation with which Hugo Chavez and brutal company ruled his fiefdom. His idea of democracy was typified by his third and, of course, successful re-election campaign: The opposition got three minutes of television time a day, while El Comandante commandeered all the air time he wanted, any day any hour, 24/7.

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Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.