Bedtime reading for an iron-fisted ruler

What book does Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez read before turning in after a long day of receiving the country's poor on his palace grounds?

Critics of Mr. Chvez's "peaceful revolution" might suspect it's Mao Zedong's Little Red Book - or Col. Muammar Qaddafi's Green Book. Those suspicious of his leftist leanings might opt for Marx's "Das Kapital." Others imagine it's the script from Jean Claude van Damme's "Universal Soldier 2," now blanketing Caracas cinemas.

But in fact it's a modest tome called "The Warrior's Oracle," a pop philosophical work by a young Chilean biologist. And thanks to Chvez, this 90-page book, composed mostly of one-page chapters with titles such as "The Warrior goes in search of the devil," is now a bestseller on the streets of Caracas.

Author and martial-arts spiritualist Lucas Estrella looks at how the "warrior" - any individual in today's bellicose world - can settle his own internal conflicts.

It's not clear why Chvez, known as a long and flowery talker who demonstrates little on the introspective side, is so taken with the four-year-old book. What is certain is that once the word got out that the wildly popular president keeps the how-to guide in his breast pocket, "The Warrior's Oracle" began selling faster than Venezuela's cheap gasoline.

Hawkers, their shoulder bags bulging with dozens of copies, sell the little volume on busy shopping streets for $2. "I must have sold 10,000 of these things," says Ricardo, presumably exaggerating the success he's had selling the book outside the Venezuelan Congress - ground zero of an ongoing constitutional struggle between Chvez forces in a power-usurping Constitutional Assembly, and members of the national Congress. Adds Ricardo, "I've done my share of street sales, but nothing's ever gone like this."

A "little gift"

The book was a "little gift" to the president from his wife, Maria Isabel Rodrguez. After that the loquacious Chvez was known to pull the book out and quote from it, telling people he likes to read it in the evenings. But what really piqued the country's interest was when Chvez was seen reading the book during the traditional July 5 Independence Day speech in Congress by the political opposition. The speaker was prominent historian Jorge Olavarra, a former Chvez confidant and ardent promoter of the Chvez presidency, who has since turned coat to become one of the president's fiercest political opponents.

As Mr. Olavarra's attack on the Chvista project heated up, Chvez was captured by television cameras in the hall reading a small book in total serenity. It was "The Warrior's Oracle." Chvez said after the speech that the book had helped him retain his composure.

Perhaps he read the sentence, "Come out of the tornado of life and make a place to meditate. Keep still, calm your spirit." Or perhaps this one: "Make your opponent understand that there is no reason to spill blood on this beautiful earth. [Victory] is making your enemy into your friend."

In any case, the book is now a household fixture here, and is referred to in the press, even in news stories, as simply "the Oracle." One of the more interesting theories on why Chvez makes his identification with the book so public is that he knows its simple declarative prose, unintimidating size, and I-hear-you-on-that philosophy - "A warrior is always vigilant. A warrior always keeps his eyes open" - are elements his base of support in Venezuela's poor and poorly educated masses can relate to.

Not cultivated, but clever

"Chvez is not cultivated, but he's clever enough to speak to the masses in codes they understand," says an anti-Chvez intellectual. "Who do you want him to quote from, Shakespeare? No. Or even [Simn] Bolvar? No. But the Oracle? Yep, that works."

But Olavarra says the Oracle isn't the only read having a significant influence on Chvez. Less interested in why the president reads "that little booklet," he's more concerned about the influence of Argentine writer Norberto Ceresole who claims "Hollywood invented the Holocaust."

Chvez has kept his interest in the Argentine - whom Olavarra calls a "neo-Nazi"- under wraps. But in a 1998 book including Chvez interviews, the Venezuelan expresses enthusiasm for various Ceresole projects. Chvez's critics assert he is a product of the Argentine socialist, who last visited Venezuela in January.

While Chvez has not come out and publicly endorsed Ceresole and his all of his ideals - including anti-Semitism - many believe the Argentine consulted Chvez before his campaign last year.

Chvez has, in turn, expressed his interest in Ceresole's project for South America's integration. Both want to fortify Latin American unity. A columnist for the Caracas daily, Universal, wrote a critical piece tracing Chvez's constitutional goals of integration back to Ceresole. By strengthening cultural, military, and economic ties between South America and Central America, they aspire to create a regional bloc on par with the United States and the European Union.

And Ceresole has written with interest of Chvez's "post-democratic project" where "all power remains centralized in his person rather than in any institutions." - sparking increased speculation of an ideological alliance. He also writes of Chvez as a leader with "international projection with the determination to preserve national culture."

For Olavarra, Venezuelans should pay less attention to the president's interest in a Chilean writer's small book, and more to the "strong influence" in the presidential palace of one Argentine writer.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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