The first of many times I met Hugo Chavez was in his modest apartment in a middle-class neighborhood of Caracas in May 1998. I spent probably an hour or so with him.
He was alone, even though his campaign for president of Venezuela was ramping up quickly. As I re-read the profile I did of him, I’m struck by his consistency. I ended my article with this quote from him:
"Hugo Chavez is the expression of the reality in Venezuela. So whoever studies this reality, whoever analyzes it, should not be afraid.”
In hindsight, few would argue that Chavez was indeed a natural outcome of a decayed political system that ignored the 60 percent of Venezuelans who lived in poverty. Chavez ruled Venezuela for 14 years until his death Tuesday.
In that long-ago interview I did for the Miami Herald, the self-taught Chavez quoted Rousseau and Lincoln, Bolivar and De Gaulle. He referred constantly to Simon Bolivar, the national hero of Venezuela. And he spoke of himself in larger than life terms.
"A lot of people say I am Hitler combined with Mussolini. Others say I am Gadhafi with a bit of Castro," he told me, mocking the image of himself as a tyrant.
I went on to cover Chavez during his first two years in office, attending his lengthy press conferences, both admiring his street-savvy political ways and weary of speeches that would drag on for four or five hours.
Then, curiously, even though I had been assigned to Beijing, I kept running into Chavez, probably two or three times. My wife and I became friendly with the Venezuelan ambassador, and every time Chavez would come to China I would go to his press conferences. He would look at me for a moment, a hint of recognition in his eyes.
No one now says Chavez was a Gadhafi combined with Castro. He’s just Chavez. That was how big his impact has been in Latin America. I co-wrote this story today here about his gravitational pull in the hemisphere. My colleague Kevin Hall penned another personal story about his interactions with Chavez.
This is tangential to Mexico, but in fact Chavez and past Mexican leaders have tangled. Former President Vicente Fox notoriously clashed with Chavez in Argentina in late 2005, leading to a near rupture in relations. After Fox criticized Chavez for anti-free-trade remarks, the fiery Venezuelan labeled Fox a “puppy of the empire,” referring to the United States, his favorite bogeyman.
The two countries did not send ambassadors again until August of 2007 but relations hit a new low in 2008 when Chavez expropriated assets of the Mexican companies Cemex and Gruma. It wasn’t till late 2011 that the two sides agreed on compensation.
Former President Felipe Calderon couldn’t keep his distaste for Chavez to himself, often spilling his feelings to U.S. diplomats. According to this leaked cable, he believed Chavez funneled money to his opponent in the 2006 elections. He asked the U.S. government to do more to counter Chavez. Only death was able to do that.