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.”