WASHINGTON -- You can list me as probably one of the few Americans who feel sorry for Hugo Chavez. This week he traveled once again to Cuba -- just as he used to fly to that beautiful but drained isle to sing songs with Cuban President Fidel Castro, or woo him with free barrels of oil. But now he traveled for yet another cancer operation.
The cancer? Never quite described. But everyone knows it's deadly serious, after a series of operations over a period of a year and a half. Indeed, his information minister, Ernesto Villegas, first described the operation as "difficult, complex and delicate," and then used the same words to describe his recovery.
If he should die now, or soon, he will be succeeded by his vice president, 50-year-old Nicolas Maduro, a one-time bus driver who has loyally served Chavez for six of his 14 years in office, and is described by El Presidente, in one of his more temperate of descriptions, as a "complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work, for leading, for handling the most difficult situations."
But what will this all mean? And why do I feel sorry about the illness of President Chavez, who has turned out to be only a rather poor copy of his dear crony, Fidel?
I first came across Hugo Chavez in 1992, when I interviewed Gen. Fernando Ochoa in the Venezuelan military's dramatic headquarters on a mountaintop outside Caracas. Ochoa was troubled. A relatively small, fanaticized band of soldiers had nearly overthrown the government in a country where such formerly expected "golpes de estado," or coups d'etat, had become unthinkable.
Also amazing was the fact that the dissident officers had enlisted up to 10,000 men to revolt, according to Ochoa, but "there was something of anarchy in the coup, something of frustration, but it was not clear ... what kind of state they wanted."
Even more surprising, the leader of the coup was an unknown but flashy lieutenant colonel, or "comandante," named Hugo Chavez, who became a wildly popular figure in society even as he went to jail for the coup.
Flash-forward to 1998: I was one of the few foreign journalists to interview Chavez, only a week before his ascension to power -- and then more power, and then (you guessed it) more power. I interviewed him in the late morning in his beautiful, art-filled apartment in Alto Prado, a town also atop the mountains outside the capital.
As we sat on his couch underneath a large painting of his great hero, Simon Bolivar, he said: "I'm not a warrior. I'm a soldier. I don't like war. I like painting and children." Then, as I asked about democracy, or Marxism, or capitalism, he answered: "We don't copy other models, we invent them."
My first impression of Chavez was that he was a kind of innocent. His own paintings of Bolivar on his walls were naive. But he and Venezuela had behind them 30 years of not-so-naive elected leaders who had bilked the country of some $200 billion in oil money.
That is how it began. But soon, this son of schoolteachers from the "campo," or countryside, would sway more and more to the Latin style of "macho," or "caudillo," or "direct democracy" leadership typified especially by Juan Peron and Fidel Castro, and by many leaders in Spain. Thus, the long and electrifying speeches of Castro in the plaza, and soon the same with Chavez, often on radio and TV.
So he has been elected and re-elected, and he may have passed on even as I am writing this ambivalent tribute to him.
What will he have left behind him? A confused vision of how people develop, a foolish need to blame every problem on the United States, and a philosophy of "Chavismo" that is hardly anything but a Latino version of Eastern Europe before 1989.
Venezuela has an estimated $80 billion in foreign debt. Chavez has made food affordable for the poor, but that has gone hand in hand with terrible shortages. His program of neighborhood clinics, most of them overseen by thousands of Cuban doctors, are popular, but hospitals have been starved of equipment. The New York Times reported that Christmas trees from Canada were delayed for weeks because of port screw-ups.
Such infantile planning is particularly unforgivable in Chavez's Venezuela, because it has millions, yea billions, of dollars in oil revenue. He could have done anything.
Indeed, we know how to develop countries today, but, burdened by his Latin macho ego, this caudillo chose outmoded models. Alas!
It is sad because Hugo Chavez obviously has, or had, many talents. In my talks with him, I could not help but sense a desire to do good; but the naive socialism that he inflicted on Venezuela meant not only that he would never be able to realize the things for his people that democratic leaders in Brazil, Chile and Colombia are now accomplishing, but that all the guilt and responsibility would lie at his own feet.