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Jun 23, 2014

Soccer night with the Chavez family

The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 2001 with daughter Rosi and wife Marisabel.
The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 2001 with daughter Rosi and wife Marisabel.

BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela -- A family gathered last night to eat food and watch the United States soccer match, and it was like any other family, except for who, and where, they were. The ex-wife of the late Hugo Chavez, and his daughter, invited me to watch the game with them, in the snack bar of a rural Venezuelan softball complex. Rosines Chavez, who graduates from high school next month and wishes her dad were alive to see her receive her diploma, laughs with a friend about the things all soon-to-be graduates laugh about: their last final exam next week, the unwritten essays and unfinished applications. The girls leave tomorrow morning for a quick beach trip, and while Rosi's bodyguards will cramp their style a little, she's used to it. As she and her friend gossip, Portugal scores an early goal, and Rosi Chavez starts grinning, clapping her hands over and over, clearly making fun of the elephant in the room, namely that her father was a corrupt Marxist thug and I am an imperial Yankee dog.


Venezuela is a country masquerading as a shrine to Rosi's dad.

The first thing you see upon entering passport control is a wall-sized portrait of President Chavez, and after making it through the border guards, the first thing you see in the baggage claim is another enormous portrait. Leaving the country is the same: four more photos in the international departure lounge, and a poster of the sky that says "Comandante Eterno." Between the city of Barquisimeto and the village where we'd watch the game with Marisabel Rodriguez, the first lady of Venezuela from 1997 until her divorce in 2004, walls alongside the highway were plastered and painted with Chavez murals: stencils of his whole body to stencils of his face to stencils of just his eyes.

"Viva Chavez," the graffiti artists tagged over and over again.

He died in March 2013, after a battle with cancer. Separate from the debate about his internal policies in the country he ran, he exists as a folk hero in the Latin American world -- morphing in death to a kind of deity, stripped of his many faults -- mostly because he talked about the Americans -- about us -- in a way most people dared to think only in private.

"I hereby accuse the North American empire of being the biggest menace to our planet," he said, and much of Latin America cheered.

"Go to hell, gringos," he said, and much of Latin America cheered.

When, in the middle of a rant against former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, he said, "You are an imperialist pawn who attempts to curry favor with Danger Bush-Hitler, the No. 1 mass murderer and assassin there is on the planet," much of Latin America cheered.

This past year, I've spent a lot of time in Central and South America, in places where the CIA has operated since the dawn of the Cold War, and where U.S. companies and soldiers have been visiting since well before then. Of the nine Latin American countries in the World Cup, every one of them has either been invaded by American soldiers or had at least one government toppled by an American-backed coup.

Any American having a long conversation in Brazil, or Argentina, or Chile, or anywhere in Central America, eventually will hear about the School of the Americas, the now defunct military camp run by the U.S. Army in the former Panama Canal Zone. Activists claim it was a torture school -- its graduates did include many future torturers and death squad leaders -- but an examination of the records reveals that those are somewhat exaggerated claims. The stories of the CIA are not exaggerations. The shadow of the United States looms in every country in our hemisphere, and Chavez gave voice to the insecurity and powerlessness over the intention and reach of that shadow. Rodriguez, who had a complicated relationship with her ex but still respects him, says that people in the U.S. and Latin America will always see things differently.

"You have very good public relations guys," she says, trying to give her opinion and also be kind to a guest. "You've sold an image of your country abroad that I think maybe is not true. The interventionism is an abomination."

This conversation is why I wanted to watch a U.S. game in Venezuela: What's it like to be American in a place that is as anti-American as all but a few places on Earth? Watching with Rodriguez started as a goof: a joke with my translator that, if I went to Venezuela, I should hang out with one of Chavez's two ex-wives, so I'd be with the only other person in the country who shared an American view of the late president. Then she said yes, and welcomed us into her family, and as a jungle rain pours outside, we all follow the action on the screen, maybe 15 family and friends laughing and eating cheese bread.

"Since I'm your host tonight," she says, "I want the USA to win."

As she is talking about the United States' foreign policy in Latin America, the United States' national soccer team scores a goal to go up 2-1 against Portugal, and the people sitting around the television roar and cheer and clap, pulling for the guest. Nine minutes plus injury time remains. Someone brings me a celebratory cold beer, with tiny bits of ice still stuck to the bottle.

"The president used to be against imperialism," she says, "but not against the people of the United States."

***

Rosi and her friend Michelle don't really care about the game.

They're more into television shows and music, and hearing them talk about their likes and dislikes is one more reminder that the CIA can't project nearly as much soft power as one American rock 'n' roll band on a world tour, plugging in electric guitars to big Marshall stacks. The NSA can't do what pop culture can.

"Big Bang Theory," Michelle says.

"Game of Thrones!" Rosi counters.

They like 30 Seconds to Mars -- Michelle thinks Jared Leto is hot -- and Lana Del Rey. They both like Guns N' Roses, Green Day and Panic! at the Disco.

"Radiohead!" Rosi says.

The conversation goes down the hole of favorite bands and songs, me and Leo, my translator who plays bass, Rosi and Michelle, an army officer who has to be a bodyguard, and a rotating cast. We trade iPods. Rosi's is full of the usual suspects, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna and Katy Perry, and some surprises, from Paramore to the Beatles to the Zac Brown Band.

There is a lot of Taylor Swift.

"I love her!!!" Rosi gushes.

Her favorite song is "Safe and Sound." She likes Lil Wayne's "How To Love," and Hunter Hayes' "I Want Crazy."

They scroll through my iPod, taking note of the Rolling Stones and Tom Petty, and I play the Pearl Jam song "Alive," which they'd never heard before, making Leo and I feel impossibly old. The soccer action pulls me away for a while, and when I tune back into the conversation, they're singing a familiar song. It's "Jolene," which they know as a current hit by Miley Cyrus. I download the original version and play it. Leo and I make eye contact and laugh. I'm watching the U.S. play in the World Cup while introducing Hugo Chavez's daughter to Pearl Jam and Dolly Parton.

"Jo-lene, Jo-lene," Rosi and Michelle sing to themselves, "Jo-leeeeene, Jo-leeeeene. Please don't take him just because you can."


The last 15 minutes last forever, winding into stoppage time. Everyone senses my tension and is kind, right up until the moment when Portugal scores, at which point the place erupts. A guy makes tear-wiping actions at me, laughing, and I laugh back, and everyone feels badly for me, the one person who had a rooting interest.

"Sorry," Rodriguez says, covering her face with her hands, and I think she means it. We are people from two different places, with two different views of the world, but tonight, for a few hours, we'd all focused on the things we have in common, whether it's the Zac Brown Band or the way a fan feels about his or her team. I miss my father, who died at 58, which is the same age Chavez was when he died, and I felt sympathy for Rosi when I heard she quit playing softball after her father's death, the joy of something they had loved together now gone. I was feeling the glow of the World Cup, and how differences faded away watching a game. Rodriguez asks what I'm thinking, which is her way of asking what I plan to write. She's a former journalist.

So I tell her, about how I feel a little hope. That after writing a dozen Latin American stories about nihilism and conflict, it will be nice to write one about a bridge being built instead of one being burned. She just looks at me when I'm done, and the uncomfortable silence makes me ask if she thinks I'm naïve. She doesn't answer, just starts laughing, slow at first, building into a full-on bust-up. That's her answer, one of someone who's seen the world up close.

"Life would be much easier if it was a football game," she says finally, "and the only enemy was FIFA."