‘To lead” and “to seduce” have a single root in the Latin language. They are intimately tied in Venezuela, as well. For all of President Hugo Chavez’s failures as a leader, he was a supremely successful politician, a brilliant beguiler.
It is a testament to his seductive powers that after 14 tempestuous years of rule — two of them in the clutches of a devastating illness, which finally claimed his life Tuesday— he continues to have a near-mythical hold on the Venezuelan people. Even as the country crumbled around him, even as he leaves a legacy of ruin, the multitudes adore him. Irish journalist Rory Carroll has gone a long way to explaining this leader-seducer in a riveting expose, “Comandante.”
Carroll covered Latin America for the Guardian from 2006 to 2012. While reporting on news of the region, he kept returning to his foothold in Caracas, ever more fascinated by the one-man phenomenon unfolding in the place he called home. Chavez was the big story — the only story. “He bestrode society like a colossus, commanding attention, everywhere his voice, his face, his name. It did not matter whether you despised or adored him; you looked. Covering Venezuela was like wandering through a vast, boisterous audience that simultaneously booed and cheered the titan who turned the presidential palace, Miraflores, into a stage.”
“Comandante” traces Chavez’s single-minded rise to power, from a humble boyhood in the dusty town of Barinas through a meteoric trajectory in the army and, eventually, to his 1992 military coup attempt that landed him in prison and made him a national hero. But nowhere is Carroll’s portrait more fascinating than in his account of Chavez winning the presidency in 1999, his subsequent, ubiquitous presence on television and his careful fashioning of Chavismo — a ferocious brand of anti-capitalism with a folksy smile — a cult that is unique in the annals of Latin America.
Chavez, Carroll takes pains to explain, was no dictator — he was a democratically elected head of state. Nevertheless, he managed to walk a fine line between pop hero and strongman. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote after spending a day in his company: “I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been . . . with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot.” He was magnetic, funny and well-read, and he managed to convince the majority of his countrymen that things were getting better, even as the nation whirled into an abyss.
It is that illusionist we get to know in “Comandante”: Here is a consummate performer, a president who projected himself alongside the image of Venezuela’s national hero, Simon Bolivar, then appropriated live television day after day for hours at a time, “mulling, musing, deciding, ordering.” He chatted up the man on the street, turned cameras on himself during palace conversations, worried over the price of milk with mothers, joked with hard-drinking laborers. “He would sing, dance, rap; ride a horse, a tank, a bicycle, aim a rifle, cradle a child, scowl, blow kisses; act the fool, the statesman, the patriarch.”
At any given moment of the day, the figure of the president, with a bright, winning smile and a torso “of reinforced concrete,” would be seen flickering in the living rooms of Venezuela like some strange, Orwellian phantom. Eventually, “Hello, President” — a marathon Sunday program in which the chief executive wandered the streets of Caracas dispensing wisdom, history lessons and cash like a talk show host on steroids — “became like the lottery, everyone looking to get a job, a house, something” from a beneficent government. Never had a country been run like this. Never had Latin America had a leader who thought like Marx and dished like Oprah.
Chavez called it a revolution.
And a revolution it was. In the course of it, he upended the Venezuelan aristocracy — that old, corrupt, entrenched establishment of oil tycoons and beauty queens. He made the poor his cherished children. To keep firm control of his message, he abolished the ministries’ press offices and centralized the news.He renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. He forged ties with Fidel Castro and shunted petro-dollars to Cuba. He nationalized Venezuela’s huge reserves of oil, gave away fortunes, created a new class of rich (merrily referred to as the Boligarchy), built miles of housing for the indigent and, when the bills came around, printed more money until the over-leveraged economy foundered. His goal, when all was said and done? To unite Latin America in a firm alliance of revolutionary republics that would serve as a bulwark against the United States.
Firmly anti-American, fiercely populist, Chavez devoted his entire career to turning Venezuela upside down. For him, it was the darker races, the marginalized, the needy, who deserved the country’s riches. Carroll shows how Chavez’s shoddy understanding and willful manipulation of the economy rained misery on the very people he meant to save. We see, in this vivid narrative, a government that is Shakespearean in its failings. By 2000, one year after Chavez was installed, a campaign everyone could believe in — rout the corrupt! elevate the poor! invigorate the nation! — had produced a clone of Cuba’s faltering communist state. “Fatherland, socialism or death!” had replaced the old Venezuelan battle cry, “Patria o muerte!,” and Chavez made no secret that he would go to any length to see that things went his way.
Little by little, there were defections. His most devoted lieutenants were increasingly discomfited by his shift to bellicosity, his tendency to oust any official who disagreed. By 2002, his massive and very public firing of government officials prompted a march on Miraflores Palace. What began as a protest turned into a full-blown coup and attendant massacre.State television showed none of it; the opposition’s channel broadcast live footage of the corpses and blood.
When Chavez surrendered the palace and was shuttled off into captivity, it didn’t take long for his generals to bring him back. He returned to his presidential seat chastened, but not for long. Who was to say that the violence hadn’t been staged to smear an innocent president?
By 2007, when Carroll was asking Chavez why he wanted to abolish term limits for himself but claimed to be aghast at officials who strove to become regional caudillos, all pretense appeared to be over. Chavez’s government now intently began eavesdropping on those it considered suspect. Threats were handed out to anyone who grumbled. As the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was ushered out, cocaine dollars rushed in. A wave of unimaginable crime followed.
There was more: Oil money had made it cheaper to import than to manufacture; cheaper to buy other countries’ food than to invest in agriculture. The poor were eating, but the country was suffering a dire anemia. And although it cost a Venezuelan a mere dollar to fill his automobile tank, inflation soared, topping the charts in the hemisphere. A Boligarch boasted that he had paid $25,000 for a watch; his female counterpart, as much for a party dress.
By 2011, this faux economy fooled no one. The judicial system had been virtually shut down. The constitution had been rewritten. Disillusionment among officials was rampant. Protests erupted throughout the country, sometimes as many as 10 a day. The vision of Chavismo had slumped into disrepute, and Latin American presidents, even those who claimed to be Chavez’s friends, politely turned away and looked to Brazil for enlightenment.
But to the Venezuelan poor, the president continued to be a beacon. For all the country’s problems, they insisted that his heart was in the right place. As a result, he swept the 2012 elections, his loyalists draping the streets with baffling banners: “Long live Chavez! Down with the government!”
Carroll’s book ends before Chavez’s health took a sharp turn for the worse in December. Indeed, it closes as the Comandante makes a triumphant return from his first operation in Havana and leads the campaign that swept him to another term. That is not a drawback, necessarily, but something else is: Carroll too often falls into the lamentable British habit of making Latin Americans out to be clowns and their troubles ridiculous farces. “Keystone Kops,” “ridiculous,” “cartoonish,” “clownish,” “fool” — these are just a few of the epithets delivered with a sneer. It’s an annoying tic, and a tiresome one.
But at its best, his book is deeply informative, a sprightly chronicle of Venezuela’s dizzying journey under its Comandante. And despite the author’s protestations that Chavez was no dictator, he has ended up telling us just that. Here is a lively portrait of a new Latin American genus: the democratically elected caudillo. As Garcia Marquez so presciently said a few years ago: “The dictator is the only mythological figure Latin America has ever produced; and his legacy is far from over.”
Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela
By Rory Carroll
PenguinPress. 302 pp. $27.95