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CARACAS: As Venezuela was giving a state funeral for Hugo Chavez yesterday amid a national outpouring of grief, his many critics here nurse fears that the man they accuse of inspiring hatred and division during 14 years in power was being turned into a martyr.
When he learned of Chavez’s death of cancer on Tuesday, Giuseppe Leone, a 78-year-old Venezuelan-Italian, said, “I almost cried.” “But there are no words for what Chavez did: he ruined Venezuela,” he said.
Like this deeply polarised nation, Caracas itself is split geographically in its feelings for Chavez — worshipped in the poor, populous western half of the city and reviled in the better off, more cosmopolitan east.
In the east, many look back on Chavez with bitterness and others with a lingering sense of regret. Few would agree to be quoted by name, a measure of the deep unease.
On an avenue in eastern Caracas, Rafael, a construction company employee who asked that his last name not be used, said Chavez’s death was a “lamentable loss” but the firebrand leftist leader “separated the country by social class.”
“Here we learned to hate, to insult, to belittle each other,” he said. “It even divided families, and set off fights among family members who did not share Chavez’s ideals. I know many cases,” he said.
In a cafe, 28-year-old computer programmer Jose Mendoza summed up Chavez’s legacy this way: “Hate and division was the only thing he sowed.”
The streets of eastern Caracas seemed emptier than usual in the wake of his death, while in the west hundreds of thousands of Chavez’s followers converged on the military hospital where he died.
“He may have done many social things, but he could have done more,” said Sara, a civil servant who asked that her last name not be given. “He also did a lot of damage, because there are no institutions, there is no justice; he mistreated anyone who dissented from the government,” she said.
A lawyer who would not give his real name had a litany of complaints. During Chavez’s 14 years in office, he said, there was “an absolute loss of control of public monies, disrespect for the separation of powers, abuse of power and no respect for dissent.”
Even though Chavez was charismatic and held millions of Venezuelans spellbound, the lawyer said, he failed to solve “the great problems facing the country,” like crime, which soared in the past decade, resulting in “thousands of violent deaths.”
Sara said the elaborate funeral and seven days of mourning decreed by the government was “normal” for the death of a president, but she worried that it will become “something eternal” or that Chavez will be turned into “a deity” like Che Guevara.