WASHINGTON -- When I had the only interview that Hugo Chavez gave to an American in 1998, just a week before he was to be elected to his historic and somewhat wild-eyed presidency, he was a well-dressed chap who declared himself quite sure about who and what he was.
At the time, when the hemispheric conservatives feared "another Fidel," the clean-shaven and charming Chavez told me in his beautiful mountaintop apartment overlooking Caracas: "I am not a communist, not a fascist. I am a Bolivarian, whose ideology exists as an ideology of liberty. He was the author not only of physical independence but of an ideological project -- for Latin America, for all the world."
As we sat under and around innumerable large paintings of his hero Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of Latin America in the 19th-century revolution against Spain, I asked him if there was a model for how he intended to rescue his country, which had been ravaged of $200 billion of oil wealth by its "elected" presidents in modern times.
"A model?" he repeated. "There isn't any model -- certainly not Cuba or the Soviet Union," he summed up grandly. "We don't copy other models; we invent them."
Those were swelling words to hear from Latin America, for centuries caught between the aristocrats of the right and the anarchist Fidelistas of the left. But when Presidente Hugo Chavez died this week of a long-germinating colon cancer, the great irony of his 14 years of work and of his roaring, charismatic attempts to meld the Venezuelan poor to him turned out to be no "new model" at all.
There was medical care for the poor barriada-dwellers clinging miserably to the sides of the mountains around Caracas. There were Cuban doctors for the poor and there were schools for everybody. There was a cutting of the power (and the production) of the American-owned oil companies, and a discouragement of small business.
Not only was there no new model, there was far from even a sustainable economy for the country, as Chavez wasted his time and riches on giving oil to Cuba, wooing Iran and the Middle East, and trying to start new institutions for the continent that would cut the United States out of the hemispheric picture.
As Chavez' cancer-ravaged body was laid to rest this week -- and as millions of Venezuelans hailed his memory -- Washington's Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue and arguably our best Latin Americanist, told The New York Times: "There is not a lot of ideological coherence in Chavismo. It is a mood, sensibility, a real rejection of the traditional political order, a concern for greater social justice, greater participation by those who are excluded."
All the while, however, there WAS another model growing in Latin America, which fair-minded analysts would have to say today outshines Chavismo. Ironically, it is a middle-ground, middle-class, middle-passions program that depends little upon the charisma of the leader and everything on education, the development of jobs in hand with industries, and cooperation and consensus between government and business.
This model is Brazil under retired President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, a democratic labor leader from the northern part of the country. Under Lula's leadership, millions of Brazilians have been raised to the middle class and Brazilian industry has risen to world class.
Presidente Lula had kind words for Chavez as his death was announced. "One need not agree with everything Mr. Chavez said or did," he wrote in the Times this week. "There is no denying that he was a controversial, often polarizing, figure, one who never fled from debate and for whom no topic was taboo. ... However, no remotely honest person, not even his fiercest opponent, can deny the level of camaraderie, of trust and even of love that Mr. Chavez felt for the poor of Venezuela and for the cause of Latin American integration."
Indeed, no one can deny that. Chavez recognized the poor and spoke to them; he told them they were people, not objects. It reminded one of Castro's early days in Cuba in the 1950s and '60s -- and the same weaknesses of those Castro days. The Chavez government built a hospital in Caracas in an area that had been ravaged by mudslides in 1999, for instance, but the project took more than 10 years to complete. "What was missing," one doctor told the Times, "was the will to get things done."
That is one of the worst qualities to plague all socialist countries. There is plenty of "will" to go out on the podium or the stump and drive "the masses" into a mob screaming your name; but there is no serious will to get practical things done. Cuba rots.
Venezuela now stands as a question mark. And the mama and papa of both Venezuela and Cuba, the Soviet Union, has a sign on its "model": "Closed indefinitely." Nobody wanted to build sewage systems.
Despite all, I will remember Hugo Chavez as the charming, Bolivar-obsessed young fellow in that long-ago interview, desperately seeking attention before he found his socialist answer. Venezuela will never forget him for his identification with the poor. And Washington will grit its teeth whenever his name is mentioned.
But no one will ever accuse Hugo of "making the trains run on time."