CARACAS — Hundreds of thousands of citizens, and more than a score of world leaders, gathered Friday, March 8, in the Venezuelan capital to bid farewell to fallen President Hugo Chávez.
People openly wept as the president was eulogized, with many saying that Chávez would live forever in people's memories. Ana Rodriguez and Nora Albas say they will remember El Comandante as long as they live.
Their reasons, however, are quite different.
Albas, 32, is the wife of a farmer in the central state of Aragua. She's an admitted rojo rojito (reddest of the red), or a super-Chavista. Thanks to various government loans, Albas and her husband have been able to expand their small 6-acre farm, which is mostly planted in tomatoes and peppers.
The couple said that they have received various farm tools for free and have access to discounted fertilizers and seeds when they are available. Her consejo comunal, or government commune, also paved the lane leading to their farm. She admits that she doesn't understand that much about socialism, but says it is far superior to the capitalism that preceded it.
"Chávez has made a huge difference in our lives," said Albas, who looks younger than her age. "Thanks to El Comandante, we have much more now than we did before. Our children have more of a future. And now I have a voice in what happens."
Such optimism isn't shared by Rodriguez, a 30-year-old doctor in the central industrial city of Maracay. She claims that Chávez, who died March 5 after a two-year bout with cancer, has destroyed the country, both politically and economically.
"My family owned a farm in Guárico [a central agricultural state] for years. We weren't rich but we had a comfortable life -- but we worked for it. Seven years ago, the government expropriated our farm," she said. "My father gave his life to it, and now he has nothing. They haven't given us any re-compensation at all. My father used to spend all of his time there. Now his day consists of sitting in front of the computer and playing hearts online."
Her one brother had to emigrate, thanks to Chávez's policies, Rodriguez said.
"He is a petroleum engineer, and when Chávez nationalized oil operations here, he lost his job at the U.S. company that employed him. He's bright and hardworking, but he couldn't work for Petróleos de Venezuela [PDVSA, the state oil company] because he signed the recall petition against Chávez in 2004. If you signed the petition, you're automatically blacklisted from all government jobs."
More than 2.7 million people signed the petition, or roughly 10 percent of the population. Many subsequently lost their jobs in the resulting witch hunt to root out Chávez's critics.
"I work in a state hospital and I love my work, but crime is horrible," said Rodriguez. "We've had gang members come into the emergency room, hoping to kill people they had shot and had been taken to us. I can't leave the hospital at night because we have so much crime. And people just assume I have money as I am a doctor."
The two women's stories hint at what may be El Comandante's ultimate gift to his country: extreme polarization. Before Chávez was elected in 1998, Venezuelans were politically apathetic. That's no longer the case.