It was approaching midnight when the Venezuelan air force plane climbed over Havana and wheeled south, skimming over a moonlit Caribbean, bound for Caracas. Gabriel García Márquez sat with a pen and notebook next to Hugo Chávez. There was little physical resemblance between the two men. The writer was small, with a white mustache, dark eyebrows, and gray, retreating curls over a lined, alert face. Chávez was not especially tall but was powerfully built, still athletic, with cropped black hair, a hatchet nose, and a smooth, dark complexion. Standing next to him, García Márquez resembled a gnome. Seated and buckled, however, they shrank to more equal dimensions.
Both men had been guests of Fidel Castro. Cuba's old fox had taken close interest in the Venezuelan, and now it was the turn of the Nobel laureate. It was January 1999, and Chávez was returning to his homeland to be sworn in as president. He had won an election a few weeks earlier and was now set, at forty- four, to become the republic's youngest leader. A Colombian magazine had commissioned García Márquez to write a profile. Before finding fame as a novelist, Gabo, as friends called him, had been a newspaper reporter and still had a newsman's instinct to interview and probe. "We had met three days earlier in Havana," he subsequently wrote. "The first thing that impressed me was his body of reinforced concrete. He had an immediate friendliness and a homegrown charm that were unmistakably Venezuelan. We both tried to meet up again, but it was not possible for either of us, so we decided to fl y together to Caracas so we could chat about his life and other miracles."
Chávez had yet to take office, and already his rise seemed extraordinary. Venezuela had once been considered South America's most successful and therefore boring country, a realm of oil wealth and beauty queens that sat out the region's cold- war-era dictatorships and revolutions in a haze of petrodollar complacency and bloodless elections. That changed one explosive night in February 1992 when an unknown lieutenant colonel named Hugo Chávez attempted a coup and sent tanks and soldiers with camouflage- painted faces to assault the presidential palace, Miraflores. President Carlos Andrés Pérez escaped, the coup failed, and Chávez went to jail, but six years later he stormed back as an election candidate, swept aside rivals, and here he was, president-to-be, flying beneath the stars to an unwritten fate. Who was this man?
García Márquez had special reason to accept this assignment. In novels such as The Autumn of the Patriarch and The General in His Labyrinth, he had explored the psychologies of Caribbean leaders. Many dictators had thrived on these humid coasts over two centuries and woven themselves into the culture as mythic personages. The master of magical realism studied and did not necessarily condemn them. Fidel, in fact, was a personal friend. Having just won a clean, landslide election, Chávez was no dictator but came with a whiff of cordite. Supporters called him comandante.
García Márquez's pen skimmed across the notepad as his interviewee related his childhood and political rise. The article observed: "The February coup seems to be the only thing that did not turn out well for Hugo Chávez Frías. He views it positively, however, as a providential reverse. It is his way of understanding good luck, or intelligence, or intuition, or astuteness, or whatever one can call the magic touch that has favored him since he entered the world in Sabaneta, in the state of Barinas, on July 28, 1954, born under Leo, the sign of power. Chávez, a fervent Catholic, attributes his charmed existence to the hundred- year- old scapular that he has worn since childhood, inherited from a maternal great- grandfather, Colonel Pedro Pérez Delgado, one of his tutelary heroes."
The son of poor primary- school teachers, as a boy he found among his mother's books an encyclopedia whose first chapter seemed heaven- sent: "How to Succeed in Life." Young Hugo did not last long as an altar boy ("he rang the bells with such delight that everyone recognized his ring") but excelled at painting, singing, and baseball. His dream was to pitch in the major leagues, and for that the best route was the military academy. The cadet gradually abandoned his fantasy of a roaring stadium because in the academy he fell in love with military theory, political science, and the history of Simón Bolívar, the Liberator who expelled the Spanish from much of the continent in the nineteenth century. Lieutenant Chávez received his graduation saber from Carlos Andrés Pérez, the president he would try to overthrow two decades later, an irony he acknowledged. García Márquez prodded at this. "What's more, I told him, 'You were about to kill him.' 'Not at all,' Chávez protested. 'The idea was to set up a constituent assembly and return to barracks.' "
Here the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude noted that in fact he did share one striking similarity with his concrete- built interlocutor. "From the first moment I realized that he was a natural storyteller, a product of Venezuela's creative, exhilarating popular culture. He has a great sense of timing and a memory that has a touch of the supernatural, allowing him to recite poems by Pablo Neruda or Walt Whitman, or entire passages of Rómulo Gallegos." The profile continued recounting Chávez's narrative: his fascination with family history; his indignation at Venezuela's social inequalities; his reluctant counterinsurgency hunt for Venezuela's dwindling guerrilla bands in the 1970s; his gathering of fellow officers into a conspiracy in the 1980s to overthrow a corrupt state and usher in a real democracy to make Bolívar proud. Chávez gave García Márquez a small scoop, revealing a previously unknown coup co-conspirator, "a fourth man," who happened to be on the plane. "He pointed a finger at a man in a seat by himself and said: 'Colonel Baduel!' "
All this the article related in an affectionate tone that was not surprising. In addition to storytelling, the famous chronicler shared Chávez's leftward political tilt, friendship with Fidel, and anger at Latin America's extreme wealth inequalities. When the plane landed, it was 3:00 a. m., and Caracas glowed in the distance, a swamp of lights. Chávez embraced García Márquez farewell and invited him to attend his inauguration. The old man stood on the asphalt and watched his subject disappear into the night, bound for power. Chávez had promised his followers utopia and seemed in a hurry.
We do not need to wonder what thought went through García Márquez's mind, a mind revered the world over as that of some kind of oracle. At the end of his article, a few short lines shook loose like a kaleidoscope everything that preceded them. "While he sauntered off with his bodyguards of decorated officers and close friends, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling and chatting pleasantly with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot."
From COMANDANTE: Hugo Chavez's Venezuela by Rory Carroll. Reprinted by arrangement of The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 2013 by Rory Carroll.