In the wings with the Bolivarian showman

Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chávez, began his Latin American tour in Government House’s White Salon unpunctually yesterday morning, accompanied by his Argentine counterpart Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

The mirrored room on the first floor, with its own mezzanine reflecting the centenary ceiling mural, gradually filled up but not to the brim, first with a 20-strong Venezuelan entourage, then with 14 of Fernández de Kirchner’s closest aides including Economy Minister Amado Boudou, Industry Minister Debora Giorgi and Social Development Minister Alicia Kirchner.

Possibly fatigued by the inevitable wait, the press was more animated than the orderly line of waiting ministers, with journalists waving and signalling enthusiastically at their political contacts. Boudou, for one, waved back with a reluctant smile before turning away.

But then one aide broke rank briefly to greet a Venezuelan colleague, crossing over the Hollywoodesque carpet for a quick greeting.

Forty-five minutes later, a cleaner started to sweep up offending specks of dust from the entrance rug which matched the visiting delegation’s ties — there could clearly be no other colour of the day apart from red. Surely this was a sign indicating Chávez’s imminent arrival.

The chattering continued. If the delegations and media had had to wait thus far, then how long would the Bolivarian leader speak for to compensate for lost time? The clock was ticking, and after the White Salon, the presidents were expected at the Argentine Thinkers and Writers Salon for a further presentation before buzzing down to shipbuilder Tandanor’s yard on Costanera Sur.

Mirrored doors opened and closed, but no one worth clapping stepped through them, and no smoke was revealed either.

Then the Argentine president, wearing a belted black lace skirt and long-sleeve blouse, slipped through a reflecting door after a pair of elegant granadero soldiers, and took her place on the low stage, alone.

But even she was kept waiting by her Venezuelan friend and counterpart for several minutes. After plenty of smiling, CFK made some “phone me” hand gestures, then proceeded to look at the ceiling, hands clasped.

Distant drumming announced that Chávez was in the building and, in fact, close by. Coming through the salon’s front door, Venezuela’s leader sped up the red carpet to take his place onstage, jolly and smiling in a navy blue suit and black shoes, and slimmer than his regular fatigues give him credit for.

A speedy presentation ensued, no statements uttered, not yet, as the visitors crossed sides to greet Argentina’s ministers, with CFK reciprocating, introducing her colleagues by their first name. President Chávez grasped the men with a vigorous, low, double handshake, kissing the three female politicians on each cheek. He gave good chat to those he already knew, including Argentine Ambassador to Venezuela Alicia Castro and CFK’s sister in law, Alicia Kirchner, who seemed surprised by the attention as she attempted to return to her place in line mid conversation.

Diplomatic pleasantries over with and Fernández de Kirchner must have mentally clicked her fingers because the White Salon instantly emptied out.

On to the second floor, and act two.

Another 45 minutes later, and the crowded room, lined with sepia images of Borges, Sábato, Ocampo, Cortazar and Walsh, sighed unanimously, hoping the dynamic duo might turn out to be a little more dynamic.
More door movement, when a security man pointed a thumb backwards and act two began with Chávez.
“We’re going to sign an agreement which will strengthen our relationship,” he said, not using notes, as the cameras snapped away from the right wing, referring to the 16 barges Argentina is going to build for Venezuela.
Chávez also referred to the current situation in Libya, saying: “We don’t want bombs — we want peace in order to continue our development of Latin America.”

Ending his speech, Chávez made light of his reputation for long discourse, with a joke: “That only lasted about five minutes, didn’t it?” to rapturous chuckling. According to the dictaphone, he was spot on.

Leading lady Fernández de Kirchner, her white-painted fingernails clasping a scrap of paper for assistance, also talked about the need to “resolve problems at home in peace” while Chávez looked stage left towards her, his index finger drumming almost rhythmically to her monologue.

Preparing to pose for official pictures, Chávez’s attention was suddenly attracted by the writers and thinkers behind him. Better than strategically placed was journalist Rodolfo Walsh’s portrait, in whose name he received a prize for services to popular journalism in La Plata later yesterday afternoon.

The presidents turned their backs to the room, while CFK highlighted Walsh’s history. “He was ‘disappeared’, wasn’t he?” interrupted the Bolivarian leader.

One quick photo session, in which starlet-in-the-wings Florencia Kirchner, the President’s daughter, briefly stole the limelight to hug President Chávez, a few V signs were given to the cameras (standing for Venezuela, peace, election victory?) and act two concluded. Time for a set change and act three, surrounded by vessel carcasses at Tandanor’s shipyard, began and the presidents reiterated their mutual support for each other as well as bilateral agreements.

As supporters streamed out while their ship-building counterparts returned to work, the presidential helicopter flew over the snaking masses and Puerto Madero, onwards to lunch at the Foreign Ministry before Chávez finally took centre stage and a leading role at La Plata’s journalism faculty — 90 minutes late, naturally.

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on 30 March, 2011.

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