The Unpredictable Fashions of Hugo Chávez

Venezuelas President Hugo Chavez (L) attends a friendly softball game against the Enmienda Si Va team at Fuerte Tiuna military bases field in Caracas, January 31, 2009. © Reuters

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez (L) attends a friendly softball game against the “Enmienda Si Va” team at Fuerte Tiuna military base’s field in Caracas, January 31, 2009. © Reuters

Hugo Chávez, the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, is one of the most charismatic leaders of our time. He lead a failed coup in 1992, got elected in a 1998 landslide, was forced out of office for 48 hours in 2002, endured huge opposition pressure, street protests and a prolonged general strike in the two following years, emerged victorious from a referendum on his rule in 2004, won a third term in 2006, suffered his first electoral defeat in 2007 (when voters in a referendum narrowly rejected proposals to extend his powers and accelerate his socialist revolution) but had his presidential term limits abolished in a February 2009 referendum, clearing the way for a (lifetime?) re-election in 2012.

Chávez is famous for his populist, oil-fuelled kind of “new socialism” – only made possible because Venezuela’s oil reserves generate about 80 percent of the country’s total export revenue, contribute to half of the central government’s income and are responsible for about one-third of the country’s gross domestic product. He is the subject of both adulation and loathing among his divided electorate; while delighting the poor Venezuelan masses for the last 10 years with popular subsidies and massive street rallies, Chávez has been alienating and infuriating the powerful business, cultural and media elite by promoting industry nationalizations, restricting freedom of press and addressing the country in rambling, dogmatic speeches on his own TV show, “Aló Presidente.”

Chávez is often under the world news spotlight not so much for his Cuban-style authoritarian government or South American socialist coalitions, but largely for his controversial courting of other “charismatic” leaders (such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Libya’s Mouammar Kadafi), famous admirers (which include actor Sean Penn and model Naomi Campbell) or his frequent “big-mouth” incidents – the most famous being his row with the King of Spain in 2007.

As observed in news photographs (from Reuters, AP Photo and Getty Images) of the past 9 months, this larger-than-life world leader does all these things in one of three choices of attire: military uniform, suit or shirt/t-shirt combo.

Hugo Chavez and his counterparts Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil talk during the group photo session at a summit of leaders from Latin American and Caribbean nations, in the Costa do Sauipe resort December 17, 2008. © Reuters

Hugo Chavez and his counterparts Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil talk during the group photo session at a summit of leaders from Latin American and Caribbean nations, in the Costa do Sauipe resort December 17, 2008. © Reuters

Chávez’s most-worn outfit, an olive-colored uniform, evokes his military officer background and conduct. Even when paired down to a light cotton jacket over a (at-all-times) red T-shirt, the military ensemble (often complemented by a red paratrooper beret) truly matches his bellicose nature, which often clashes with the also informal, but civilian fashions of his ruling counterparts.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing April 8, 2009. © Reuters

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing April 8, 2009. © Reuters

The suit and (at all times) red tie is the official dress of Chávez, the President. His suits, mostly navy in color, are remarkably well tailored from fine fabrics and fit him rather well. Only worn on official occasions, a suit is surely not Chávez’s first choice in clothes. He does however prove to surround himself sartorially well and lives up to “First World” expectations and demands – even if his way of speaking, facial expressions and body language can be as unpredictable and inappropriate in cashmere as in olive drabs.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrives at his closing campaign rally ahead Sundays Referendum in Caracas, February 12, 2008. © Reuters

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrives at his closing campaign rally ahead Sunday’s Referendum in Caracas, February 12, 2008. © Reuters

Lastly, the untucked, plain (not at all times though) red shirt over red t-shirt is Chávez’s civilian, relaxed, tropical wear. The usual choice for his weekly TV show and street rallies, this combo clearly states the “man of the people, not man of the military” persona Chávez has progressively put forward during his hot-blooded, volatile political career, in order to win confidence from his electorate and assure his people he will not drive the regime into military chaos.

Worn virtually indiscriminately, these three clothing options seem to fit both the man and his buffoon lifestyle and attitude. From head of state summits to party rallies, TV appearances to treaty signings, Chávez can get away with wearing anything he wants, because no one really takes him – or his steadfast adherence to the color red, an iconic reminder of his demagogic, pseudo-revolutionary socialism – too seriously anyway. As with most of Chávez’ statements and policies, his clothing choices also reveal his tragic-comic character. Like the man himself, they are something we are amused by, but unfortunately fail to trust.

Andrea Codrington‘s fourth assignment, titled “Personal Effects”, read: “Whether Hollywood celebrity, Washington pundit or Third World dictator, people who live in the public eye bear carefully conceived and constructed personae that begin—but not necessarily end—with the way they are dressed. Choose one person in the public eye—Hollywood celebrity, Washington pundit, Third World dictator, whatever—and collect at least five images of clothing choices to present in PowerPoint. Write a 500-word essay decoding their personae and how the clothes they wear add to—or, in some instances, detract from—the construction of their image. Paul Lukas was the guest critic for this assignment.

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