While most of the neighbors in her west Charlotte subdivision were closely following the election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, Elvia Gordils was much more preoccupied with another presidential race. Gordils is the president and founder of Venezuelans in the Carolinas, a group dedicated to organizing local expats who hail from the South American country. Each year, she organizes a potluck at a public park where hundreds of Venezuelans gather around trays of succulent roast pork, fried plantains, shredded beef, empanadas and Venezuela's most iconic food, arepas, or griddled corn cakes. Last fall, however, she spent her time organizing that group for a more weighty cause — defeating Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in the 2012 election.
"We had a local family who moved to Texas shortly before the election but were still registered to vote at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, D.C.," she said. "Our group came together and paid for their plane tickets."
Gordils also went to the embassy, filled with hope as she and thousands of Venezuelans cast their votes Oct. 7 for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. But her dreams of a Venezuela free of Chávez were shattered that evening when the leftist president won his fourth term in office, with 55 percent of the vote.
But Chávez was never sworn in as president on Jan. 10, as the constitution mandates. At the time, he was in Cuba undergoing surgery for cancer about which the details are scarce. In a highly disputed interpretation of the constitution, the ruling party in Venezuela decided to postpone the swearing in until Chávez was well enough to perform his duties.
"As far as I'm concerned, Venezuela doesn't have a president at this time," said Gordils. "No one has been sworn in."
Straight out of a novel
There is a literary genre popular in Latin American called magical realism — a style in which fantastical elements are incorporated into an otherwise mundane environment. Many Venezuelans feel as if they are living in a novel written in that very vein.
"How does the Venezuelan government expect me to believe that the president is ill, or that he is still alive, or that he is back in Caracas, when there are no pictures, no videos, no real proof?" asked Joswar Acosta, a Venezuelan who has lived in Charlotte since 1999. "During his last campaign, he told the Venezuelan people that he was cured, that he was cancer-free, and now nobody has seen or heard from him in ... months because he's supposedly receiving medical treatment. Does he think the Venezuelan people are stupid?"
The events surrounding Chávez' health aren't the only fantastical elements to his presidency: Chávez himself is an out-of-this-world character. As the leader of Venezuela for the last 14 years, he has called President George Bush "the Devil" in a speech to the U.N.; been told to 'shut up' by the king of Spain; given speeches lasting up to nine and a half hours; made up songs about Hillary Clinton; and described, on national television and in vivid detail, an uncomfortable bout of diarrhea.
In much the same way we love or hate characters in a literary novel or television soap opera, Chávez is adored by his supporters and loathed by the opposition. Yet for all Venezuelans, whether they support or oppose him, he has redefined the meaning of the term "presidential."
The next chapter
His name comes up often in my household. As a Cuban-American married to a Venezuelan-American, Chávez and Fidel Castro are permanent fixtures in mine and my husband's conversations. My Cuban-American friends like to describe the situation in Venezuela as the sequel to a terrible movie they are very familiar with — the only difference being that, in the Venezuelan version, the main character is clean-shaven.
On the other hand, my husband's mother, a retiree who lives under Chávez' rule, is an enthusiastic supporter of the president and has touted his healthcare programs and the increase in her pension since he took office. On the day of his recent surprise return to Caracas after undergoing surgery in Cuba, she called us to share her joy about her commander's arrival to the homeland.
Still, nobody knows for sure what his return to Venezuela means. Has he exhausted all the medical treatment Cuban physicians can offer and gone home to die, as the opposition believes? Or has he returned to Venezuela because he is getting better, as his supporters so faithfully hope?
Whether you see him as a villain or a hero, there is little doubt that he is the central character in the Venezuelan narrative. Plot developments in coming weeks will define the next chapter in the country's history.
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