03/08/2013 09:06 pm ET Updated May 08, 2013

Encounter With Chavez

When I first went looking for Col. Hugo Chavez, I found myself sweating in the dusty heat in front of the dark metal door of his prison.

It was a few days after he had failed to take over the government of Venezuela in 1992 and been sentenced to this prison a few hours drive south of the capital Caracas.

The prison guards would not allow me in to interview him, so I went to a local restaurant for a cold drink and an egg sandwich. As I looked around me, I saw what had been bothering me all week -- the week of the coup. It was the difference between the racial makeup of the elites in the capital -- which is overwhelmingly white -- and the common people.

Like Chavez, the vast majority of Venezuelans reflect a mix of ancestry from Spanish conquistadores, black former slaves and the native Indians. So the stark difference from the upper class is striking. One feels as if there are two countries.

Fedecamaras -- the Venezuelan chamber of commerce -- had invited a few of us foreign correspondents to a post-coup meeting to assure us that all was under control and the coupistas were just radicals who would never overturn the status quo.

But what struck me more than the predictable blandishments of the ruling class was their color. Amplified by several bald heads, the whole team of 20 or so industrialists were so white they seemed pink. Many had German names. None of them looked anything like Chavez and the vast majority of the people filling the streets of the capital and the villages of this country.

For decades the two political parties AD and COPEI had alternated in running the country. There was enough money from oil to slosh through the system so that order was maintained.

Up on the teeming hillsides above Caracas were the ranchos -- the slums of red ceramic blocks covered in tin roofing. There the criminals ran the show and the police feared to tread. Each morning, down from the ranchos came tens of thousands of well-dressed young women to catch the buses into jobs in banks and offices. Young men headed to construction sites or to sell clothing and food in the open markets and streets -- what economists call the informal sector.

It was natural for the poor to gravitate to the rhetoric of Chavez.

All their lives they scraped along to put food on the table find better jobs and avoid the terror of the gangs. The government was the plaything of the elites. People really must have scarcely let themselves believe that one who looked like them would appear and lead them out of the wilderness of the ranchos to the modern life they saw in the tele-novels, the soap operas.

By the next time I went looking for Chavez, he was no longer in a jail. He was in Miraflores,
the ornate, historic presidential palace. I had gone down to cover the 1999 mudslides loosed by a torrential rain that had killed possibly 20,000 people along the coast just north of Caracas.

Chavez's press officer was kind enough to let me into the palace room where the commandante was greeting a delegation of peasants from the interior. Their adulation of Chavez was almost complete. I say almost because like every group of peasants I had encountered in 30 years of reporting around the world, these guys were also skeptics. And they came here not so much to worship Chavez but to ask for help.

So now I approached Chavez who turned from the peasants toward me and gave me a nasty look.

"I smell a periodista (journalist)," he said, touching his nose much as he had when he told the UN General Assembly he smelled sulfur George W. Bush had spoken.

I asked him if it was true that he had ordered a delay in the evacuation of the Vargas region hit by the mudslide because it might interfere with the election he was in the process of winning. He did not like that question. Then I asked him about improving relations with the United States.

That ended the interview.

Some say that his enormous ego prevented him from making more durable progress in improving the country. They note that he used oil wealth to buy friends in Latin America and allied himself with dictators from Iran, Iraq, Cuba, Libya and Belarus.

He closed newspapers and television stations that criticized his rule, tamed the judiciary with yes-men and women, packed the parliament and drove many talented business and professional people into exile.

Yet he also spent money on the poor, on medical care and food. He expropriated land to give to the poor and nationalized industries. Poverty rates fell dramatically. But Brazil and Mexico achieved even greater reduction in poverty without abridging the degree of freedom Chavez did.

In the end, we may never know what the people really thought about Chavez. He had successfully woven a myth of socialism and anti-capitalism that charmed millions and offered little chance for questioning or objective assessment of his policies and programs. At his death millions mourned the end of the comic book of absolutes that had been all many of them had ever known as the public sphere.

And even if they saw only small benefits due to economic mismanagement and inflation, Chavez was one of them who had made it to the big leagues.

He was their man. A man of the people. For better and for worse.