Hugo Chavez, image icon

July 8, 2011

Despite all the opportunities I’ve had to witness the passionate support that followers of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez show their leader, it was a profound moment for me when I photographed a sobbing woman at an emotional Mass called to pray for his health after he vanished from public sight following an operation in Cuba.

Venezuelans had more than 20 days of deep uncertainty at the end of June during which no one seemed to know what had happened to the charismatic but tough 56-year-old.

Rumors swirled, fueled by the official secrecy, with the only line given by the government that the socialist leader had undergone surgery in Havana to remove a pelvic abscess, but would be coming home soon.

Finally, the news came via Twitter on the night of June 30 that he would address the nation in a televised address at 9 pm.

The first thing that occurred to me was to race to Plaza Bolivar in the city center, specifically “La Esquina Caliente” (“the Hot Corner”), an emblematic place where large groups of Chavez loyalists normally gather.

I wanted to capture an image that summed up the passions of these die-hard supporters. But when I arrived, it was just a few moments before the president’s transmission, not a single person was there! It seemed like everyone had rushed home to hear the speech.

Carrying my gear, I had to run to a nearby bar that I knew had televisions.

A basketball game was playing on the screens when suddenly they flickered and changed to a “cadena” – a nationwide broadcast on all channels – and everyone stopped what they were doing.

Speaking from Cuba, a visibly shaken and pale Chavez told the country that he had been operated on to remove a cancerous tumor.

That was the start of several days of intense and fascinating coverage, out on the streets photographing the president’s fans holding rallies in his support, carrying his portrait aloft and chanting “Pa’lante Comandante” (“Onwards Commandant”).

Then on July 4, I was woken up very early by a phone call. The only words I heard were “Chavez is back.” I jumped out of bed, but there was little we could do. It was not until the end of the day when he finally appeared on “the balcony of the people” at his Miraflores presidential palace.

Thousands upon thousands of his ecstatic supporters thronged the streets below as he appeared, wearing a military uniform and scarlet beret, and flanked by two of his daughters in red T-shirts. Saluting the huge crowd, Chavez grabbed a big Venezuelan flag, waved it back and forth and kissed it. The street went wild.

As a Venezuelan and as a photographer, I’ve covered Hugo Chavez at many times in many different places, recording thousands of moments, many of them intense and loaded with political passion – but definitely very few like that.

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