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Hugo’s last stand?

Chávez's one idea.

Hugo Chávez rode in an open-top motorcade to the international airport in Caracas on 24 February, his vehicle plastered with an image of Christ and the procession flanked by supporters. The Venezuelan president was on his way to Havana to receive treatment for a recurrence of the cancer
that left his government rudderless last year.

“I dreamt a while ago of Christ who came and said, 'Chávez, rise, it is not time to die, it's time to live,'" the socialist maverick said as he prepared to board the plane. Though his charisma and PR skills are as strong as ever, his health is not, and this year will bring his most hotly fought election yet. "I'm a human being. I'm not immortal," the 57-year-old said. "Independent of my personal destiny, this revolution already has its own momentum and will not be stopped."

With those words, Chávez, for the first time in his 13-year tenure, admitted that the "revolution", styled very much in his own image, could continue without him. Since the former paratrooper was first elected president, Venezuelans haven't so much supported political parties or an ideology as backed a personality.

Illness couldn't have come at a worse time for the populist president. An organised and united opposition has just chosen the young, charismatic Henrique Capriles Radonski as its leader to take on Chávez in October's presidential election. The 39-year-old state governor won with 64 per cent of more than three million votes, showing a momentum that the opposition hasn't enjoyed in years.

Chávez is concerned. "We're going to pulverise you," he said, welcoming Capriles to the ring. "You're a lowlife pig." The government's machinery is also cranking up a smear campaign. On state media soon after the vote, Capriles's Jewish roots were attacked in an online essay titled "The Enemy is Zionism", and a television personality read out what he said was a police report alleging that Capriles was caught performing oral sex on another man in 2000.

Capriles is smart enough to know not to respond directly. Though Venezuela has one of the world's worst murder rates, 26 per cent inflation and regular power outages, Chávez remains popular in the barrios, and it is there that Capriles must win over voters. The new opposition leader is fighting a calculated campaign, never mentioning or attacking Chávez directly.

Instead, Capriles praises Brazil's leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, credited with reviving the Brazilian economy. Those who doubt Capriles's sincerity point to his wealthy background and historically centre-right leanings.

Barrio boys

The tide in Venezuela does seem to be turning. Watched over by murals of Che Guevara, Chávez and a dozen other left-wing heroes, hundreds turned out to vote in the primaries in Caracas's 23 de Enero barrio, until now regarded as a Chávez stronghold.

“Chávez has only one idea," said a 64-year-old fruit-seller, Roberto González, as he chopped up a malanga. "We need various ideas, because that's democracy." In the nearby slum of Antímano, Yesman Utrera, a 24-year-old student who once supported Chávez, stumbled down a set
of shoddy steps. "People believe that Chávez is their Christ and came to save us," Utrera said, “but it's not like that."

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex

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Must I unremember the day I wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man?

At that time we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

The misremembering of history interrupts these tales of my own squalid past. Very often I find myself wishing my memories were wrong, or that I’d forgotten more than I have. This would certainly be the case were I to be a politician, albeit a small-time one in big-time government. In the era of renunciations and sincere apologies, I would have to say sorry most of the time.

But I can’t. I can’t get past that clear day in May 1981, when the tangy cold spring air of a New York day got right inside me. Ambling home from another long, messy night in the Village, I was near 52nd when I saw people carrying a coffin.

“It’s not him, of course. It’s a fake coffin,” said a woman who saw the shock on my face. Maybe I was already crying. I knew and didn’t know but asked anyway.

“Yes. Bobby.”

Bobby Sands had died. Crowds were gathering with banners about Smashing Long Kesh and Smashing Thatcher.

The shock of it has never left me and God knows “martyrs” come two a penny now. Yet the idea that someone can starve themselves slowly to death for an idea is shocking. The idea that someone can let them do it, either “for” a United Ireland or “for” a United Kingdom, remains profoundly disturbing to me.

I need no lectures about what vile and murderous bastards the IRA were, or the numbers of innocents they killed. Nor about the smeary sentimentality of martyrdom itself. All I can say is that I had little idea of what “we” did in Ireland as long as I lived in England. A boy at school had run off to join the IRA. My mum said, “Well, he’s always been tapped, that one.”

We were kept ignorant. For some stupid reason, I did not think that Thatcher would let the hunger strikers die.

Their demands, remember, were the right not to wear prison uniform or to do prison work, rights to free association and education within the prison, one visit, one parcel, one letter a week. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher said Sands had no mandate. He was actually an MP, with more votes than she ever won in Finchley.

In New York that day, when we got to Third Avenue, there was anger and then solemnity. There were mumblings about what a death like that entailed . . . Mandela then instigated a hunger strike on Robben Island. There were protests in Milan and Ghent. French towns would name streets after Sands.

At that time, though, yes, we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

So, must I unremember that day when I sat down on the pavement and wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man? Let me know how to uncry all those tears shed for that terrible, terrible waste.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide