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.
No petrodictator was ever so careful to observe the electoral rules and regulations after he had thoroughly jimmied them in his favor. Literally. Since a former American president, the ever-gullible and ever-incompetent Jimmy Carter himself, certified the colonel's election to a fourth term as just fine and dandy and fair all around. If old Dante Alighieri were updating his "Inferno," surely he would reserve a special place for those idealistic who do not do evil themselves but lend their enthusiastic support to those who do.
Comrade Lenin was said to have had a term for such Western types: useful idiots. Hugo Chavez attracted many of them, too, especially in Hollywood and other cultural capitals of groupthink. Fellow travelers did not disappear with the Cold War; they just got a new hero and a new ideology: Chavismo.
Now is not the time, nor is this the place for instant evaluations, or even a comprehensive one, of Comandante Chavez's tumultuous rise and reign. There will be plenty of opportunity for political post-mortems. Let us wait and let Clio, muse of history, lend her perspective. Now is the time to sit back and enjoy the show. For nothing can be livelier than a long-awaited state funeral.
To quote an observation from "Evita," a musical that remains as up-to-date as the latest dictatorship:
Oh what a circus! Oh what a show!
Argentina has gone to town
Over the death of an actress called Eva Peron
We've all gone crazy
Mourning all day and mourning all night
Falling over ourselves to get all of the misery right
Oh what an exit! That's how to go!