A year without the Comandante
By Jorge Silva
March 5, 2014
Once in a great while there comes a day that marks the end of an era. That’s what happened the afternoon Hugo Chavez died.
It was a year ago as I write this blog, and at times I still find it hard to believe. He was such a dominant presence that in the days after his death that it seemed he would appear at any moment on national TV or in a military parade. The months passed and reality sank in. Today Venezuela seems to be a very different country from the one he left behind. It feels as if it happened a long time ago.
Chavez’s death also coincided with my tenth year documenting his controversial Bolivarian Revolution. He was the Revolution’s icon and his bombastic personality was the focus of almost all that we covered during those years. The story of Venezuela and Chavez were one and the same.
Journalistically speaking, it was a sensational story. As a photographer I found him to be a politician who understood the news media well and knew how to manipulate his image through it. He proved that whenever he was giving a speech, playing baseball, or lifting a rifle.
Chavez was a rare figure in the story of any nation. He changed the course of Venezuela’s history, and not just because he renamed the country, oversaw the redrafting of its constitution, redesigned the flag, and redrew its time-zone map. He was both hated by opponents who denounced him as authoritarian and corrupt, and beloved by his supporters for permanently placing poverty and social inclusion at the center of the political agenda.
The debate over his legacy and its rights and wrongs will last many years, probably without any agreement between those who followed him religiously and those who hated him with a passion. But maybe they will agree that he did have powerful charisma and was a compelling showman.
Chavez was the main topic of conversation for both friends and foes over the last 15 years. His dominant media presence made him a towering figure in the collective imagination. For many Venezuelans he was much more than just a politician.
I first came to Caracas late in 2002, when a massive petroleum workers strike was organized to try and oust him. The movement failed, and Chavez emerged stronger.
In the following years everything happened so quickly – trips, summits, referendums, campaigns and elections – but none was a better example of the fervor and passion that Chavez provoked among his supporters than the closing of his re-election campaign in October, 2012. Chavez knew he had little time left to live as he spoke to his followers in the pouring rain – a cinematic act before the masses.
Then came the days of his funeral, his final political act. He seemed to stop being a politician and was treated by many almost as a religious figure.
His funeral was without a doubt one of the most impressive demonstrations of political and quasi-religious fervor that I ever covered as a photographer.