I feel like I need to start with a caveat for this one. I’m about to discuss a politician, but I’m not going to discuss his politics. This isn’t a political blog. It’s about reading and writing stories, and while I have political views, I’m trying to keep them out of here.
So, that said, I want to discuss one of the most divisive figures in modern politics – Hugo Chavez. Because I’ve found him fascinating for years, and his death this week got me thinking about Chavez as character, and as a demonstration of the power of story.
Chavez was the sort of character I wish I could invent. A bubbling mass of contradictions who still managed to seem like a coherent psychological whole. He was a flamboyant showman who improvised economic policy live on TV. A dissident, both nationally and internationally. A screaming, shouting, arm-waving attention seeker who still thought deeply about the way the world worked. He even had a fascinating character arc, from believing fervently in the need for violent revolution, through failed revolt, to peaceful victory at the ballot box and almost falling victim to a coup himself. He united countries seen by some as pariahs, by others as underdogs, and defied international opinion to plough his own path.
Chavez also tapped into the power of story. He mobilised people throughout Latin American by telling a tale of us versus them, of the United States as a dangerous imperialist against which they had to unite. Within Venezuela, he could spin any situation to his own advantage, making himself the hero of a national story, with the US as the antagonist. Even in death, he’s left a legacy story, with the claim that his cancer was caused by the CIA. This claim is plausible to large parts of his audience because it turns the unfathomable tragedy of death into another storybook conflict, with a heroic victim and an underhanded villain. This gains extra credence from the well known story of how the CIA tried to kill Fidel Castro with poisoned cigars, an incident so fabulously absurd that whatever the truth it still lives on in modern legend.
Chavez was a real modern character, the stuff of stories and a user of stories. That didn’t make him any more or less deserving of his political power, but it does make him fine material for fiction.