Telma Torres flips through a diary and pulls out a crisp black-and-white snapshot of a young cadet standing ramrod straight. Then she makes coffee — strong and sweet — just like she used to serve the man in the photo, President Hugo Chávez.
And although his family moved when he was 12 from this sleepy agricultural town, Torres said she always kept in touch with her “first love.”
“He was always so humble and smart,” Torres said of Chavez, who died Tuesday. “He loved his family and never forgot about his friends.”
On Thursday, tens of thousands of Venezuelans filed past Chávez’s body at the Military Academy in Caracas for a last glimpse of the man who led the nation for 14 years and became an icon of the global left. But in this town that he called home, 400 miles southwest of the capital, classmates and friends consoled each other by swapping stories about the man everyone here knew as “Hugo” or “Huguito.”
Torres, 59, had a steady stream of visitors Thursday eager for details about her relationship with Chávez. When he attended paratrooper school in Maracay, she said, he would joke about training her to jump.
“I used to tell him ‘You just want to take me up there so you can push me out,’ ” she recalled. “We laughed about that for a long time.”
One of seven children, Chávez’s early years were spent with his grandmother, Rosa, in a wooden house with dirt floors. The house is long gone and has been turned into the Mamá Rosa elementary school.
But neighbors recalled that Chávez and his friends were so poor that they couldn’t afford a baseball bat, but still had heated games, slapping a rubber ball with their fists.
When he won the presidency in 1998, Chávez often talked about his humble background. And he plowed the nation’s oil wealth into social programs, including free housing and healthcare that made him a hero to the poor.
At the Sabaneta baseball stadium where Chávez used to play — this time on a league with uniforms and equipment — some of his former teammate had gathered outside. They used to call him “Tribilín” — the Spanish name of the Disney character “Goofy” — because he was so skinny and had big feet. But he also had a wicked fast ball and, as a lefty, could bat from either side of the plate.
Alfredo Aldana, 61, a lifelong friend, made Chávez the godfather of his four children. Although Aldana always knew that Tribilín was headed for the military, he never suspected he would become a global figure. But there were early signs, he said.
One time, after running past home base, Chávez found the water cooler empty and gave it a savage kick, Aldana said.
“Then he screamed “One of these days I am going to be someone in the country so these things will quit happening to me!” Aldana recalled. It was a joke, but it was also the truth.
There were also signs of his headstrong streak. Years later, when Chávez was an army captain, he became incensed at a local landowner who had put a gate around a battlefield memorial site. Chávez unholstered his pistol and shot off the lock then cleaned the site, Aldana said.
That fierceness followed him to the end, as he battled cancer even as he campaigned to win the presidency for another six years.
“He had a choice between his life or his country, and he chose his country,” Aldana said. “He died with his boots on, like a hero dies.”
But his combativeness also put him at odds with civil liberty groups. During his presidency, Chávez was blasted for muzzling the press, stacking the courts, expropriating foreign companies and jailing opponents.
That matters little in Sabaneta. The Chávez name looms large in this part of the country. His father, Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, was the schoolmaster before becoming the Barinas-state education secretary and then governor. When he stepped down, Chávez’s older brother, Adán, won the office in 2008, and was recently reelected. Chávez’s younger brother, Aníbal, has been the mayor of Sabaneta for the last eight years.
The Chávez clan is something of political royalty in the region, said Tarquino Gonzalez, a reporter with the local La Prensa newspaper. Despite the perception of nepotism, his father and brothers have each won elections, often by landslides, Gonzalez said.
“There’s always been a sense that their real power came from their connection with the presidency,” he said. “But now we’ll see if it’s [Chávez brothers] who have the people’s backing or if it was just the president.”
Being a presidential hometown has its advantages. When Chávez was growing up, Sabaneta had dirt roads, no electricity and cattle walked the streets, locals said. Now it has paved roads, a new health clinic, theater and bridges.
But there’s also evidence of broken promises and the failures of Chávez’s “Socialist Revolution of the 21st Century.” A once productive cattle ranch that was confiscated early in his administration remains fallow. A sugar mill, which has been inaugurated six times, isn’t fully functioning. Highways and rail lines that were supposed to cut through the region never materialized.
Even so, the opposition has never found a foothold in Sabaneta. Rafael Davila, the director of public services in town, said that of the 25,765 registered voters, 18,500 of them are card carrying members of Chávez’s PSUV party. An additional 2,000 are undeclared supporters.
During October’s presidential race, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles skipped the town, fearing a visit would be provocative.
On Thursday, as residents congregated around the central square, many swapped rumors that Chávez might be buried in his hometown. Hours later, the government announced that he would be embalmed like Russia’s Vladimir Lenin and China’s Mao Zedong and put on display for the foreseeable future at a soon-to-be-built mausoleum at the Museum of the Revolution.
But Torres, his former girlfriend, said Chávez always said he wanted to be buried on the plains of Sabaneta. She acknowledged, however, that he had outgrown his hometown.
“He doesn’t belong to us anymore,” she said. “He belongs to the world.”