A quiet Sunday morning in February 2010, the eleventh year of the revolution, and the comandante took a stroll outside the palace’s peach-colored walls. The sun was shining, the mood light. From a distance he was recognizable by the familiar walk, arms and legs in unison, one two, one two, a soldier still. Time had registered its passage in the face, fleshier than before, jowlier, and in a thickening of the torso, but old age remained at bay. Not a gray hair on his head, and the extra bulk, distributed evenly, carried well. A bear of a man. He wore black trousers and a red T-shirt beneath a tailored olive-green military jacket. It was plain, without medals or stripes or insignia, and fit perfectly. A favorite outfit. His daughter María, a gold chain glinting around her neck, held his hand and matched his pace. Aides and ministers in red T-shirts swarmed a few feet behind. When the entourage entered the plaza, a church bell pealed and pigeons fluttered.
“What’s that song?” asked the comandante, slowing his stride.
“Do you remember that song, María?” The young woman shook her head. He paused, concentrating, and the lyrics floated out. “Walking through Caracas, Caracas/the people passing and greeting me/ I would raise my fraternal hand/ and Caracas would embrace me.” He had a nice tenor voice and sang well. In fits of modesty he sometimes fibbed that it was a bad voice, prompting protests. “¡No, mi comandante!” He turned to his daughter. “María, do you remember when you were little? You would run around here chasing pigeons and then cry because you couldn’t catch any.” She blushed and smiled. “María, look, there’s one coming, grab it!” Everybody laughed.
The comandante slowly circled the plaza, lined with evergreen jabillo trees and colonial-era buildings, scrutinizing the facades, then walked to the center of the plaza toward a giant equestrian statue on a marble pedestal. The bronze black stallion reared on its hind legs, veins and muscles bulging in its shiny flanks. It had a short mane, a broad, thick neck, and the head angled to the side, as if looking where to crash the mighty hooves. The rider astride this thrusting energy wore breeches, boots, and a magnificent tunic with epaulets and braid. A cape flowed over his shoulder. He was composed in the saddle and held the reins with one hand. For over a century he had gazed down at the plaza, serene and commanding, holding out his hat as if in salutation to a cheering crowd and glory eternal.
“Look at Bolívar,” said the comandante. “Bolívar, Bolívar,” he repeated, savoring each syllable. Everyone looked. A small, darting movement caught his eye. “Look, a squirrel! Over there, look, look, look, there goes a squirrel.” Everyone looked. His attention returned to the statue. “Bolívar. Simón Bolívar, liberator of Venezuela, New Granada, Ecuador, and Peru, founder of Bolivia. Since when has that statue been there?” Before anyone could answer, he addressed one of the officials standing nearby. “What age are you, compadre?”
Fifty-two, Comandante, came the reply. “Almost my age.” Turning to a woman. “And you?” Before she could reply, he answered: “You’re thirty.” She gasped. “Yes, absolutely.” The comandante nodded. “And how are you?” Before she could answer, he turned to his daughter. “You’re younger, you’re twenty-five, right, María?” She nodded. “I remember I used to love coming here with Rosita, María, Huguito— they were very small—and we’d visit the house across the old plaza there where Bolívar was born.” The comandante paused at the statue and adopted a pedagogical tone, a cue for the entourage to cluster and form an audience. “The year they brought Bolívar’s remains here, they named it Plaza Bolívar, 1842. The oligarchy brought his remains here after expelling him in life. There was a lot of popular pressure to bring him back, and his remains stayed in the cathedral for a while. Then General Guzmán Blanco came and ordered them to put up the statue. Ah, there’s the date, look, 1874! That was after the federal war, another betrayal. They killed Zamora, and the oligarchy continued owning power. Then they started to use Bolívar, his myth, make him almost a saint, but for their own interests, to exploit the people using Bolívar himself. I started to understand all this when I was a cadet and we used to come here in dress uniform, white gloves, blue cap, there at the Pantheon and at the house he was born.” The audience nodded. Guzmán Blanco had been a dictator, Ezequiel Zamora a famous rebel.
The comandante continued. “I wasn’t born here. You know that. I was born far away, in the south, but I love Caracas now. I was afraid of it when I came here as a kid, but I love it now. Bolívar. How does the song go, María?” He sang another ballad, this one comparing the Liberator’s voice to a candle showing the true way. Applause when he finished. The president turned to the statue. “Advancing again with Simón. We have arrived, we have come, and he leading the battle from the front.” More applause. The comandante squinted in concentration to remember a poem about the Liberator. Squinting turned his eyes into impenetrable slits, the more so now he had put on weight, and masked the object of his gaze. He always sought eye contact and would continue scrutinizing his audience left to right, right to left, a minesweeper of faces, appraising expressions. Mural artists tried to render that look by furrowing the brow and narrowing the eyes. The toy dolls of him had a little lever at the back of the neck to swivel them. When the real comandante’s brown eyes flashed back open, whoever was in his sight line at that moment would jolt. Read more