For days the papers had been carrying ads announcing his return, and on the final week it was announced in a reverse ad at the bottom of Page One by an eight column headline in white letters four and a half inches high on a black field.
"The Man Arrives Saturday."
Peeking at the reader from the "O" of Sábado, the Spanish word for Saturday, was "the man's" face.
On the last day—Saturday—the same half page ad appeared in both morning and afternoon papers. It had a big picture of "the man" and carried the following message: "Wolfgang Larrazábal, ex president of the Government Junta, Admiral of the Armed Forces of Venezuela, arrives at 6 p.m. this afternoon. People of Venezuela: Greet him at Maiquetía." All day Saturday cars with loudspeakers urged the people to go down to Maiquetía Airport to receive and welcome Larrazábal.
At 5 p.m. the airport was a madhouse. Lines of parked buses choked the narrow side streets as more rolled in, disgorging enthusiastic Larrazábal supporters. Traffic cops were busily blowing their whistles while a platoon of police stood at ease in front of the airport administration building.
Hundreds of people milled around in front of the long row of buildings separating the street from the airport apron and inside the air conditioned buildings, ogling at the girls behind the airline ticket counters, sitting in the lounges, and overcrowding the restaurants.
The big show was out in the street, where handbills thrown by the handful from passing cars, the tops of parked buses, and other high places floated down to earth like autumn leaves.
"People of Caracas, here comes the man," said some of the leaflets. The message continued: "On Saturday 12th your great leader, Wolfgang Larrazábal, arrives in Maiquetía. People, let's revive the great old days we lived under his guidance, let's go receive Wolfgang." Shouts of "Viva Larrazábal" broke out as a group of men proudly and clumsily brought up a ten foot high picture of Larrazábal. The huge portrait, painted on cotton cloth strung over a light wooden frame, was very light but so many willing hands wanted to help that they got in each others way while officious boys and girls wearing armbands saying "Brigades of Order" helped confuse movement by acting independently, guiding streams of people against each other. Despite the disorder and much arguing, Larrazábal's picture was eventually placed across the street from the entrance to the administration building. People clumped around ice cream and popsicle vendors in the hot sticky heat. Some sought out bits of shade but others sat resignedly wherever they could, even on the baking hot hoods of automobiles. A column of youths parading down the street raised a cloud of dust. They held up banners welcoming Larrazábal and were followed by giggling girls waving pennants. The girls wore disappointingly revealing skintight toreador pants, then coming into vogue.
I guess the heat was getting me for as I walked through the administration building with Journal photographer Charles Tasnadi I found myself thinking that one of the tragedies of Latin America is the inability of its voluptuous women to learn they cannot package the liquid plumpness their men adore. From behind the buildings, I looked out across the field and the Caribbean. I was sweltering in the steamy sea level heat. The sun, a mass of molten metal, shimmered as I looked at it through the haze and left me with the feeling it would soon fill up the atmosphere with real steam as it went sizzling down into the reddening sea.
Tasnadi and I ran back to the street on hearing Carlos Larrazábal had arrived. Carlos, like his brother Wolfgang, was an admiral too. Carlos had been named head of the People's Electoral Movement, MENI, a party founded to sponsor Wolfgang's candidacy for president. A loudspeaker was announcing his arrival. People ran towards him, some embraced him. Rabid leftist youths began shouting "Long Live Wolfgang Larrazábal ... New Government Now ... Down with Betancourt." It was obvious the cries asking for the overthrow of president Betancourt and other slogans shouted by the youths displeased Carlos and the world quickly went out from aides to tell the kids to cool it.
By twilight the huge crowd was massed behind the airport buildings on the field side. Fast lenses had given way to flashbulbs that popped every time some well known figure arrived. This time Jorge Dager, who had broken away from the Movement of the Revolutionary Left, MIR, and had formed his own party, the Democratic Popular Force, set off the flashes. Dager's party, it was believed, would support Larrazábal in his next bid for the presidency. Dager and other party leaders had come on the field through a different route and were walking along the apron talking to reporters and in the direction of a Venezuelan Airlines, VIASA, jet preparing to take off. The crowd suddenly rushed forward. The people thought Larrazábal was coming on the taxing jet. They completely overwhelmed the surprised national guardsmen holding them back and poured into the field. The jet's powerful lights caught the mob head on. I looked on in horror, watching the panic. The figures moved eerily, in great confusion, silhouetted against the flying dust cloud they had raised and which the powerful lights revealed. I saw the powerful beams sweep the crowd twice, and heard the plane's roar mixed with the cries from the people that realizing their mistake sought to get out of the way, stumbled and fought each other to get clear. As it turned out, the jet was pretty far away, and the two sweeps of its beams were probably brought about by the need to turn the plane slightly away from the outer edge of the apron in order to manage the large turn necessary to get it on the taxi strip leading to the runway.
The returning crowd was starting to laugh at their experience when the big Air France jet bringing Ambassador Larrazábal from Santiago, Chile, thundered onto the runway. Larrazábal's arrival rekindled their spirits and they ran around the apron, close to the buildings, shouting enthusiastic "vivas." It was a strange euphoria in the dusk. By this time more national guardsmen had arrived. They made a determined effort to stop the surging crowd as it ran towards the whistling, lumbering giant, but it was to no avail. The crowd massed solidly around the ship's port side as service trucks, tractors and ground personnel drove up, their honking horns only adding to the confusion. Despite the crowd's interference the two boarding ramps were moved up to the plane. Photographers and politicos scrambled up the steps. The plane's doors were opened and efforts made to clear the crowd away. national guardsmen strained against the pushing wall of humanity, shouting, "Please, Please." The ramps were pulled away and brother Carlos made an effort to get the crowd to move away, but it was impossible.
There were many other politicians present on the field besides Carlos and Dager, including some members of Democratic Republican Union who put Larrazábal up for president four and a half years before, independents who had been ministers in the Junta headed by Larrazábal, communists, and MIR party members, including MIR chief Domingo Alberto Rangel, who clung steadfastly to the lower part of the railing of the ramp put up against the first class section.
"Long live Wolfgang ... We want a socialist Venezuela ... Long live the Communist Party," the slogans rent the air. "Down with Betancourt." A big red banner fluttered sluggishly in the faint breeze, hardly noticeable against the dark sky. Carlos left and a pretty brunette stewardess came out to announce the admiral had left the plane. A man came out and yelled, "He's gone." No one believed him. Occasionally someone would shout, "There he is. There in that window." Others claimed they had seen him in the pilot's cabin. Gradually the noise died down and someone began strumming a cuatro , a native Venezuelan four stringed instrument shaped like a small guitar, and the crowd began chanting folk songs. An older man, pleading in a dull monotone, continued exhorting Larrazábal to come out: "Wolfgang, you know the people love you. We are waiting for you."
But Wolfgang was gone. He had been sitting in the first class section next to his mother who had gone to Chile for the recent marriage of Wolfgang's eldest daughter, when Miguel Thode, an old friend, came up to him and said, "Follow me." Wolfgang followed him the length of the plane and wormed himself out through the service door on the starboard side of the plane and into a waiting navy station wagon. Later he told me he was blinded by a powerful flashlight as he came out under the edge of a wing—it was the stabilizer. He said he was suddenly yanked into a car and in the dark hit on the forehead by a rifle barrel. The station wagon slowly made its way west, turning into the street beyond the glare of the lights in the arrival area. Larrazábal went unrecognized until he passed in front of the administration building on the way out of the airport.
"Vivas" and "Hellos" rang out as those still there ran towards the station wagon, their outstretched arms reaching for the open window, seeking Larrazábals' hands, trying to give him an abrazo.
I broke through the national guardsmen surrounding the car and pounded on the rear window, which was opened by aides thinking I wanted to take a picture—but both cameras around my neck had telelenses and I had no flash. They shouted at him to turn around and have his picture taken. He turned and grinned while I shouted at him:
"May I come with you?"
He didn't hear me and turned to continue shaking the hands thrust at him.
By this time I had created a commotion, I was fighting off the national guardsmen who couldn't understand my obstinacy. I held on to the station wagon's tail gate for all I was worth, still pleading with the aides, pestering them while beating off the national guardsmen with one hand, running after the moving car as the cameras beat against me and the station wagon tail gate. I somehow managed to pull out a card and gave it to the aides who passed it to Larrazábal. He took it, grinned and said something like, "How are you?" that I couldn't hear. In a desperate effort I lunged through the window and screamed:
"I'm a correspondent for Time and Life . May I go with you?"
By this time the national guardsmen had me by the legs, pulling, trying to get me out. I had two tugging at me, one on each leg. But they were at a disadvantage since they were trying to pull against the direction they were running and they were in turn being pushed by the mob pressing behind them. I made my way slowly, finally getting the tenacious guardsmen to let go my wildly kicking legs and crawled in, helped by Larrazábal's aides who tried to soothe the cursing guardsmen by shouting at them that the Admiral had said it was okay for me to get in.
It was dark, but people were everywhere. They stood out every time we passed under a street lamp and I could see their faces pressed against the station wagon windows between their hands as they tried to see. Larrazábal was still trying to regain his composure; he reached for his comb and combed his hair. The car hardly moved along despite the efforts of the national guard to clear the road. The clutch, or something, was burning. The driver could not see where he was going. The smell was getting worse and it was evident the car could not last much longer. Suddenly the crowd thinned out and to our surprise the road ahead was completely clear. But the driver, in the confusion, had made a wrong turn and instead of heading for Caracas was going towards La Guaira. At an intersection it was decided to change cars. Larrazábal told me I could continue with him as he stepped out of the station wagon. A crowd began to form, seemingly out of nowhere, as he walked over to a motorcycle cop to say hello. Aides ran after him urging he get into the other car, a new sedan. I had difficulty getting in. They had closed the door, but I clung on, reminding Larrazábal he had said I could go with him. I again got his attention and he gave his okay. The door was opened and I jumped in, his aide letting me by so that I was in the middle, with Larrazábal on my left in the back seat. I had never met Larrazábal before.
The driver, Luis Reyna, an old acquaintance of Larrazábal's whom he called el Torero (the bullfighter), swung the car around at the first intersection and onto the 17 kilometer super highway to Caracas. One of Larrazábal's aides wanted Reyna to take the old road to Caracas, a narrow and much longer road with 311 curves that snakes up and over the mountains. As it turned out, the old road would have been better.
As the car moved up the super highway, Larrazábal began thinking about the reception. As we passed the place where the driver had missed the road to Caracas, Larrazábal could see hundreds of people crossing, going back to their homes at Maiquetía and La Guaira or to their cars. The lone motorcycle escort cop ahead gave him away and people began shouting him welcome. The car began to pass buses on the way up. Banners fluttered on their sides, and the passengers stuck their heads out, waved, and cheered.
"My God," said Larrazábal as we passed bus after bus. "My God. They shouldn't have done that." The mountain air blew cold against our faces. He began to relax.
"How beautiful it is to see the joy of the people," he said after a long silence. "One tells them `don't push' and they push." He laughed spontaneously, adding, "It's as though one were asking them to push."
I thought the time was ripe for an interview.
"What is the purpose of your visit, Admiral?"
"I have come to Caracas to spend a couple of weeks with my family and to take care of some personal affairs."
"What about politics?"
"And of course I will have to talk about those things, about politics."
"Will you run for president?"
My questions had caught Larrazábal off guard, in a relaxed frame of mind, and my second one probably fell before he could continue because his answer came very quickly.
"My condition as a member of the armed forces prevents me from talking about politics."
I knew I had to throw my questions in fast. The ride uphill was short on the super highway, and I had to compete with his friends in the car and his own questions to them. But that took care of the burning question in Venezuela anyway. Obviously many people wanted him to run, and it was just as obvious to me that he was impressed with his tumultuous reception.
"It is very thrilling," he said in answer to the question of what he thought about the reception. "The truth is that one has to be thankful for the courtesy of friends who come out to welcome one."
He was kidding el Torero when the latter asked him if he'd had supper.
"No, you know," said Larrazábal, "I'd sure like to have an arepa with chicharroncitos ." His companions laughed. They knew he missed home. Arepas are tasty native Venezuelan corn meal buns stuffed with a variety of fillings after the soft interior has been scooped out with a fork. Chicharroncitos are fresh pork cracklings, a favorite filling.
Larrazábal was still talking about what he wanted to do—go to a baseball game, see the horse races at La Rinconada, and "just walk the streets of Caracas"—when we rounded the last curve.
As we shot by the toll station on the left we noticed two cars parked on the road forking to the left and saw the men inside sit up in surprise and start to wave frantically. We sped right by them, up towards Plaza Catia, the normal route into Caracas.
Larrazábal's eyes popped as he saw the crowd loom up in the windshield. He shouted at el Torero :
"Go on, go on. Don't stop."
But it was impossible to continue. The road was a solid wall of people and they came up fast as the car's tires screeched. They engulfed the car. They shouted "Vivas." Hundreds of arms shot through the windows trying to reach Larrazábal. All light from the outside was blacked out as the mob surged around and on the car. The car came alive. All of us in the car shouted, pleading for cooperation. The car got moving once, inching along. We stopped again, amid shouts of "You're off the road." National guardsmen from the toll station came up and started pushing people off the car as it was both pushed and moved back under its own power. With guardsmen ahead, clearing the way and others on the hood, the car began inching its way upward again. It was impossible to tell where the car was. When I first looked at my watch it was 7:40 p.m. Twenty minutes later after we had been moving around, inches at a time, I asked someone outside, "Where are we?"
"At the Plaza Catia, compañero ," he answered.
We had not moved, and now the mob overpowered the guardsmen. Boys in their late teens threw themselves at the car. Others sidestepped it as it moved forward slowly, grabbing at the headlights and the front part of the fenders trying to stop it. Others jumped on it turning in the air to land seated on the hood, facing forward, and some on the hood fell or were pushed off. Hands reached in blindly, feeling both sides of the car. It was a nightmare, as though we had been blinded by a monstrous octopus with hundreds of tentacles that were thrashing about trying to ensnare us in the murk.
"Please move back and let us have some air," we pleaded.
The car's windshield and the back glass were sweating. People were now walking around on the hood and the trunk. A woman's legs and skirt were clearly visible, their shadow projected on the sweaty windshield as she walked across the hood and then towards us. Then a new noise, a thumping as if hands were pounding on the roof. A crumpling of metal. The roof was caving in! They were walking on the top of the car and the roof was sinking. Larrazábal stuck his head out the window and finally crawled out, making his way to the top of the car in a desperate effort to get the crowd to open up. As I was crawling out the window on my side of the car, I looked up and saw him on the roof. He was immediately joined by a thirtyish, shapeless woman in a tight dress who hugged him amid cheers. As the car began moving again someone shouted:
"You're running over someone."
El Torero tried to back up and about that time there was a crashing of glass as Larrazábal, accompanied by his aides, ran off the back of the car and downhill towards the toll station.
The crowd surged after Larrazábal, who had followed a signal from a national guardsman and made it across the line of guardsmen barring the way towards the toll station. He jumped in the car they had ready for him and was whisked to his Santa Mónica home.
As the crowd reached the line of guardsmen, one already in a gas mask raised his pistol and after seeing the mob was not stopping fired it into the air. This halted the mob momentarily, but it surged forward again, and this time the other guardsmen opened up with submachine guns, also into the air. The mob retreated, many threw themselves to the ground, others ducked behind doorways and still others fell in the mad scramble. The activists regrouped and came back, hurling rocks at the guardsmen, who intensified their fire. The angry youths began lighting fires in the streets along the Plaza Catia. More guardsmen and police came and began chasing the demonstrators along Avenida Sucre, the same street where President Richard Nixon had been threatened by an angry mob five years earlier when Larrazábal was President of the Governing Junta. The guardsmen moved down the street behind their barrage of tear gas, which was driving the demonstrators back. I ran along, very conspicuous: I was wearing a tie and coat and had the two cameras with the long telelenses hanging from my neck. I was immediately challenged by the demonstrators. I knew they disliked some of the local newspapermen, especially those who worked for anti leftist publications. They seemed to have no objection to my being there after I told them I was a foreign correspondent, but they cautioned me: "You'd better get out." I had to get out and file anyway, and I knew I could hardly stand around unnoticed in a suit and with the two bulky cameras around my neck. I had taken a camera to the airport with me in order to gain access to the field and possibly get a long distance shot of Larrazábal and had inherited Tasnadi's when it became evident he could only use a wide angle lens with a flash.
I walked and ran along Avenida Sucre until I got a taxi to pick me up. I had to beg the man. Taxi drivers know the Venezuelan bochinche and get away from it as soon as the disorder starts. I pounded out 300 words at the cable office, but my file got to New York too late—the magazine was closing.
We did the story the following week, noting that three people had died and another nine had been badly wounded, and that someone had lifted Larrazábal's wallet with U.S. $1,500 in it during the mad welcome.
Larrazábal returned to Chile two weeks later and came back for another try at the presidency. He was unsuccessful again.