Houdini’s Legacy

Chavez

For a leader like Hugo Chavez, who has so completely dominated his country’s political scene , the decision to name a sucessor to Venezuela´s presidency while he undergoes surgery for an outbreak of  “malignant cells”  feels something like a swansong.

It’s the first time that Chavez, in power for 14 years, has admitted publically to something that until now has been only a rumour in Caracas, and solidly denied by his loyal following: that ”el comandante” is gravely ill and might not be able to continue at the head of his revolution.

In Chavez´s own private pantheon of martyrs – a curio shop of Jesus Christ, Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara and Nelson Mandela – the only one missing is himself.

Chavez

His speech, broadcast live by all the country’s television and radio stations, was charged with the solemnity of a great occasion, something like Hector’s farewell to his people before leaving behind the doors of besieged Troy to fight his last battle.

Was it just another piece of extravagant theater by the famously loquacious leader, or the beginning of a long goodbye?

I’ll never forget Chavez’s triumphant reappearance in 2002 on the terrace of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, brandishing Bolivar’s gold, diamond-studded sword, two days after his enemies, (with the tacit support of the US Embassy) ousted him in a coup d’etat. Chavez’s quick comeback was a trick worthy of the great Houdini, and interpreted in the poor neighborhoods of the capital as the resurreccion of a messiah. “I’m not myself anymore. I’m the people,” he told an exultant multitude.

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Before he boarded a plane for Havana, Chavez asked for the support of “all groups, civil, military, at this time”. But can chavismo itself survive without Chavez?

Chavismo is a heterogeneous universe that mixes leftist parties, liberals, ex-military figures, academics, anti-capitalists, indigenous groups etc.  The vice president,  Nicolas Maduro, the union leader and official successor, has promised to be faithful to his mentor “in this world and in the next”.

Less clear are the loyalties of Diosdado Cabello, a former army lieutenant with a putschist past, who is the current speaker of congress. And then there’s the opposition leader Henrique Capriles and his Democratic Union Movement (MUD), who lost to Chavez in October’s presidential elections but still managed to scoop up 46 percent of the vote. Lacking Chavez´s charisma, Maduro might not be able to stand up to Capriles at the polls.

Chavez has changed the face of Venezuela like no other leader, channeling the feelings of the lower classes who had been nearly invisible to the European-descended oligarchies.

But he has also profoundly divided Venezuelans, once largely indifferent to politics.

Nowadays people either love or hate Chavez. There’s no middle of the road. If Houdini doesn’t pull off his latest trick, his apprentices and enemies might find themselves in a battle for his legacy, bringing inestability to Latin America.  Lots of petro-dollars are up for grabs.

Waiting for Gerda

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I recently read a fascinating biography of Gerda Taro, war photographer, correspondent, liberated woman, companion and lover of André Friedmann, with whom she created the mythical Robert Capa, the fictitious name under which they both published some of the most memorable photographs of the Spanish Civil War.

Gerda was run over by a tank and killed in the Battle of Brunete in 1937 at the age of 26 and André, who from then on kept the name of Robert Capa, was killed by a landmine in Indochina in 1954 after having covered World War II. By then, he had become the legend that eclipsed the memory of “the little blonde” Gerda, whom he would never forget.

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Some of the images coming out of Syria contain echoes of the poetic force of the photos taken by Gerda and André when they turned their Leica lenses upon the barbarity in Spain: refugees fleeing to the border, the frightened child who clings to his mother not understanding what is happening, abandoned cities under the bombs.

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Young, passionate and with a tragic end, Gerda and André embodied the glamour and love of risk-taking surrounding the myth of the war correspondent. In besieged Madrid, they shared hotels and soirées with Hemingway, Dos Passos and Alberti.

Yet they were above all (more Gerda than André) idealists who thought that with their cameras they could change the world and stop the march of fascism in Europe. In their black and white photos, the flame of human dignity seems always to shine among the ashes. “Any man´s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” wrote John Donne in a poem that inspired the title of Hemingway´s Spanish Civil war novel For Whom the Bells Toll.

Capa

For years, the figure of Gerda was unjustly overshadowed by Capa, despite the fact that it was she who taught him to take pictures and to “dress like a dandy.” A pioneer in photojournalism, her life and work have been recently rediscovered through books, movies and exhibits, like the one organised this year by Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.

The role of the war correspondent is to capture the horror of war. Without war correspondents, witnesses would disappear. And a war without witnesses, without Gerda or André, is like a war that never happened. Who will report on the horror?

Gerda_Taro

Every time she approached the front line, Gerda knew she was playing with fire and that death was breathing down her neck, but she was always ready to give her life for what she believed in. According to Reporters Without Borders, 44 journalists have been killed so far in 2012. Others had better luck.

When I see the pictures of Syria I always think about my friend, Namir, a photographer who was killed by a gunship helicopter in Baghdad at the age of 22 while we worked in Iraq. I also think about my friend Ricardo, also a photographer, who died in Guatemala before the age of 40. And I think about Gerda, eternally young and beautiful, now happily rescued from the suitcase of history.

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