For generations of people in Kerala, Latin America has been a pet obsession for its poetry, literature, football, music and cinema. During the last decade, they had one more reason to love the distant land that most of them have never seen - Hugo Chavez.
Along with Fidel Castro, Chavez was a Communist mascot the Leftists in the state adore. His consistent anti-imperialist politics, social welfare policies, solidarity with the Left of the world and his unconditional support to the global South had made him an idol of the common people. As he died early this morning, messages and notes of remembrance filled the state’s social media space.
Some hailed his revolutionary fervor and Left ideology, while some recalled his inclusive social policies. TV channels ran special programmes hailing the departed leader.
Chavez had never been to Kerala, but some in the state had the privilege to meet and interact with him in on his home turf. One of them is the soft-spoken CPM leader and member of the Rajya Sabha, KN Balagopal. Representing the youth of India, he had met and interacted with the leader twice as part of the World Youth Festival in Caracas in 2005.
Balagopal fondly shared his memories of the departed leader with Firstpost. “The first time I met him was while leading the Indian delegation at the opening rally of the World Youth Festival. Chavez was on the stage and was out of reach for security reasons. Still, I could walk up to the dais, shake hands with him and hand over a flag of India.”
“He appeared to have been happy to see the Indian delegation. Perhaps that is why he allowed me to reach him through the security cordon”.
If the first meeting was short and sweet, for the second time, Balagopal had an elaborate interaction with him. The occasion was a Presidium style meeting at the Youth Festival in which five leaders represented the five regions of the world and discussed global issues with Chavez. The seventh person on stage was the Cuban speaker. The CPM leader represented the Asia Pacific region at the meeting.
“He was quite clued in to what was happening in India. I thought he really liked India as a country, and its people. He shared his experiences during his visit to the country earlier that year and recollected some of the moments he had in Kolkata.”
Did he know about Kerala and how dearly people loved him there, particularly because the state was the first in the world where a Communist party came to power democratically?
“He didn’t appear to know Kerala personally, but he seemed to have an overall idea, particularly because of his visit to Calcutta," he added.
Subsequent to the Indian delegation’s visit to Caracas, the Venezuelan embassy in New Delhi maintained an excellent relationship with the people of India. In 2011, Balagopal was invited to the Latin American country again as part of a delegation of five MPs, but this time, he couldn’t meet Chavez because he was out of the country. He remembers that there had been considerable change in the quality of lives of the people in Venezuela. The remarkable improvement in housing was too obvious to overlook.
The CPM leader also remembered how happy Chavez was to receive a photograph of himself with a pumpkin taken during his Kolkata visit.
Another Left leader from the state who still wax eloquent recollecting his memories of the Venezuelan leader is former state vice president of DYFI and lawyer K Anil Kumar. Anil Kumar was so impressed by Chavez, his philosophy and politics, and the state of affairs in his country that he wrote a book on his return from Venezuela titled “In the Land of Chavez” in Malayalam.
Recalls Anil Kumar: “He was a man who could harness immense energy through his sheer quality of oratory and depth. I remember his speech which lasted 6-7 hours, but people were willing for more. He had quoted extensively from the Bible, the Holy Quran, the writings of Chomsky and other Marxian thinkers. As he spoke, the people in the gallery rose to incessant Mexican waves, sang songs and danced. It was not a one-way speech, but a participatory process in which he even sang and danced with his people.”
Anil said Chavez’s vision, which was inspired by Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Miranda, of Greater Colombia, and his political philosophy that the nation’s wealth was for equitable distribution among its people were a lesson for the developing world. That he fought against a formidable opposition of 24 parties backed by the US and successfully led his country as a welfare state this long made him an outstanding icon.