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Has there been a more polarising political leader in recent years than Hugo Chávez? Hailed by some as a revolutionary hero, liberator and socialist; reviled by others as a tyrant, anti-Semite and enemy of the west. I knew him as a voracious espresso drinker with a bone-crushing handshake and a booming voice.
I met him in 2010 I when I went to Venezuela for the Financial Times. The film-maker Oliver Stone had made a documentary about Chávez and other left-leaning leaders, such as Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia, and was visiting the region to promote his movie. I tagged along.
Stone’s producer had promised me that Chávez would do an interview but I was doubtful. After all, he was unpredictable and had an uneasy relationship with the western media, which had, for the most part, excoriated his economic policies and criticised his human rights record. As hours ticked by in my hotel and the temperature rose on a sticky night in Caracas, I began to lose hope that our meeting would happen.
Then the call came, a minibus picked us up and we were off to the Miraflores Palace, careening through red lights (the norm, apparently, in the Venezuelan capital). We arrived in darkness and were ushered into a dimly lit room. There I waited, with Stone’s entourage and the president’s aides, for another 90 minutes, before being led out to meet Chávez.
After we had shaken hands and he started talking it was hard to get a word in. He sat close to me, not breaking eye contact, talking about Karl Marx and why the world needed socialism: “If we don’t have dramatic changes human existence is in jeopardy.” He spoke about other world leaders of the time, such as Nicolas Sarkozy – “He is my friend” – and denied he had ever made anti-Semitic remarks. “It is a lie and a crazy thing,” he said, insisting that those who had accused him of anti-Semitism were “owners of power that see me as a threat because we have liberated Venezuela”.
He brushed off my question about electricity shortages and power cuts in Venezuela but bristled when I asked whether his support for the ruling regime in Iran was wise – and whether he might be better off if he toned down his bombastic rhetoric. “You criticise my rhetoric? Let me tell you this…. your name is Matthew? Matteo? I have always defended myself. I am always answering and responding to multiple aggressions. Chávez is defending himself.”
I asked why he thought he was viewed so negatively outside Venezuela and he said it was because people were being “bombarded with lies and manipulations”. But who was to blame? “The media! The Financial Times, BBC, CNN.”
This, I said, was a little harsh. But he ploughed on: for all the criticism, he insisted that global groups were continuing to invest in Venezuela. I asked if that meant capitalism had a future in the country. “The future of capitalism in Venezuela,” he said, “is in the cemetery.”
The cancer that would kill him had not yet been detected when I met him: he was energetic, boisterous, bursting with life. “He’s like a bull,” Stone told me at the time. But now Chávez is gone. Will capitalism, as it was once practised in Venezuela, make a comeback?
One of Chávez’s international trips took him to several controversial countries, including Belarus, Iran, Syria and Libya – he and his aides jokingly referred to it as the “Axis of Evil tour”. I was reminded it of last month when I saw Dennis Rodman, the world’s newest career diplomat, pop up in North Korea alongside Kim Jong-eun at a basketball game organised by Vice magazine.
Rodman, a heavily tattooed former basketball star who often wears make-up, has become one of the more peculiar players on the diplomatic scene. This week he appeared at the Vatican dressed in an outlandish coat. Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately – he was unable to influence the selection of the new pope.
But he clearly has a taste for diplomacy. He said after his North Korea visit that he and Mr Kim were “friends for life” and claimed this week that he will holiday with the North Korean leader – a passionate basketball fan – in August. The US basketball season will be finished by then so we can presumably rule out seeing the duo in the obligatory celebrity-couple pose, courtside at a Los Angeles Lakers game.
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