Chavistas mourn the end of an era
CARACAS – A young man sitting alone picking at the pedals of a white rose. A group of middle-aged women sobbing, and hugging each other.
Another woman sitting by herself in a state of shock. Her eyes blood-shot red, gazing down at a photo of smiling Hugo Chavez while running her fingers softly over his face, almost like she was willing him back to life.
This was the scene on Wednesday at daybreak in Plaza Bolivar, one of Venezuela’s most important public spaces. The sun was barely peeking off the horizon, but already several dozen of Chavez's most ardent supporters – the pure Chavistas – were there.
It was the first morning of Venezuela alone, without Chavez – the man that dominated political life here for 14 years.
Emotions were raw in those early hours, tense at times.
“What media are you from and what are you going to report about our Commander?” a suspicious crowd kept asking me when we first arrived.
A handshake, look in the eye, and humility goes a long way to break down any barriers.
We spent all day at Plaza Bolivar to gauge the mood of the city from the plaza.
Eventually thousands more Chavistas gathered in the plaza mourning the end of an era.
“We have lost the best we had in Venezuela and Latin America,” Jose Amaya Guerra said. “Nobody can take that away from us.”
“I feel a profound sadness but at the same time gives us strength,” added Graciela Cedeno.
Right after we arrived, at 6am, a woman started distributing a stack of 2,000 copies of the government-funded, free newspaper. All copies were snapped up within an hour.
People picked up a copy, stopped walking, and stared down at the photos of Chavez on the cover. They were in a state of complete shock.
Chavez supporters were in the talkative mood. Being one of the few journalists in the plaza the entire day, many of the Chavistas that needed to get something off their chest to an outside audience saw me and my team as a means to do it.
“Chavez was the heart of Venezuela,” a woman holding a Chavez poster told me before going into a long story about his personal history dating back decades.
I carry a notebook with me at all times when I am out reporting - even if I have competed my formal on-camera interviews - to just capture the names and quick interviews of random people that I unexpectedly speak with.
On Wednesday in Plaza Bolivia so many people were coming up to me to talk about their love for Chavez, I simply couldn’t keep up with all the impromptu chats.
Knowing I was from a foreign media outlet, another woman just came up to me and said, “Chavez has been a global leader.” She then repeated the word,”Global,” just to make sure the point was made, before walking off.
Every ten minutes it seemed someone else wanted to tell me their Chavez story, or tell me how Chavez was likely killed by the Yankees, or tell me how Chavez was like a father, or tell me of the first time they met Chavez, or the first time they heard Chavez speak, or how Chavez had changed their life and their country. You get the picture.
Like the man who said Chavez's support helped him buy his first house. Or the woman who said Chavez stopped and hugged her when he visited her neighbourhood a few years back.
“What do you think of all this,” one intense-looking man with a sharp jaw came up and asked me sceptically.
“Well, the situation is complicated right now,” I responded as diplomatically as I could to the unexpected question.
“Complicated? No it’s not. [Nicolas] Maduro will be our president, because Chavez wants that and there is no other way,” he said, referring to the vice president that Chavez has designated as his heir apparent.
As morning turned to midday, the people kept coming up to me spilling out their personal obituaries to Chavez.
“Before President Chavez, the country was different,” another man said to me with prompting. “The poor people like me were treated like trash. The rich always had a knife held to our backs. Never again. Never.” He then walked off.
“I speak English,” a woman in a Chavez T-shirt said to me. “My sister married a gringo and they live in Dallas. That’s why I speak English too. But my sister is with Chavez, just like the rest of us. Always, Chavez!”
“Where are you from?” a man asked me.
“Al Jazeera,” I responded, while shaking his hand.
“Ah, yes, so what’s your opinion about Syria and what about Libya?” he asked me.
When I politely deferred, he quickly jumped in to tell me the details of Chavez's foreign policy in the Middle East
Another young guy came up to me wanting to talk about the constitution.
I will admit, at times it got exhausting trying to take it all in. The stories never ended.
But it was a true privilege to be able to spend the first day of post-Chavez Venezuela in Plaza Bolivar. The last page of one history book being bound into the first page of another. The stories I hear reflect the rawness of it all.
I think in many ways for Chavez supporters they found it therapeutic to relive stories among themselves, and with a journalist from abroad.
“Tell the world this,” is what many people told me after they finished reliving a good memory of Chavez.
At the end of the day, when my job was done after nearly 12 hours, I was organising my things and one final lady wandered over to tell me something else.
“Why you leaving so soon?” she asked. “Chavez's revolution is just starting.”