Venezuelans see some 'Don Quixote' in their populist leader

A month ago, says Antonio Zambrano, surveying Caracas's historic Plaza Bolivar, there were maybe 4,000 people standing in single file right here.

The line wound its way around the Congress, cut up near the cathedral, and snaked around the statue of 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar. Mr. Zambrano had come, just like everyone else, for his "personal copy of 'Don Quixote.' "

Derided by some at the time, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is playing an Oprah Winfrey-like role in Venezuela, turning the country into one giant book club - and stimulating a fresh appreciation of literary classics.

"We are all going to read 'Quixote' to feed ourselves once again with that spirit of a fighter who came to undo injustice and fix the world," the populist leader announced on TV in April, promptly printing 1 million copies of Miguel de Cervantes's 1605 tome.

Everyone interviewed in the plaza on a recent afternoon was ready to discuss the man of La Mancha. Better still for the president, many are making positive comparisons between the idealistic would-be knight who roams Spain and dares to dream, and Chávez, a leader from humble origins who sees himself as the champion of the poor, traversing Latin America to speak to the masses about a better, common future.

Author Cristina Marcano, whose biography of the Venezuelan president was published this year, says Chávez "loves the story and surely sees himself as some sort of modern-day Don Quixote," because, she says, "he likes to see himself in very heroic terms."

In an initiative dubbed "Operation Dulcinea" (after Don Quixote's lady love), copies of the book - an abridged, illustrated, and annotated edition - have been handed out in the public plazas, metro stations, schools, libraries, and shopping malls of Venezuela's 24 states. A month into the project, about two-thirds of the paperbacks have been handed out. In addition, 70,000 copies are being printed in English to be distributed to Venezuela's English-speaking Caribbean neighbors, and another 5,000 will be printed in French and sent to Haiti.

"To be really honest, I suppose some number of those people who lined up to get the book were illiterate, and the others had probably already read the book in high school, like myself," says Mr. Zambrano, "but that is part of the genius of this program. It's about being more educated, but it's also about everyone having the right to a library at home. Why should only rich, reading-types have libraries? We are all equal and worthy - that is what Don Quixote and Chávez are trying to tell us."

Nobel laureate José Saramago of Portugal, in a special introduction to the edition, stresses this theme of betterment and equality, writing that "curiosity moved Alonso Quijano [the ordinary man who later transforms himself into Don Quixote] to read, reading led him to imagine, and now, free of the ties of habit and routine, he is able to travel the roads of all the world."

Most Venezuelans, explains Zambrano's son, Rolando, grew up on a steady Don Quixote diet: "We watched the story in cartoons when we were kids, and then we heard it referred to everywhere later - from our churches to our telenovelas [soap operas]. But we never actually read the text carefully," he says. Now the country reminds him of "one big schoolroom," where everyone, armed with a personal copy of the book, is encouraged to "really think about the meaning for us today."

"Both Chávez and Don Quixote are fighting for justice and equality and the oppressed, they are both tolerant to all, and they both want to create better worlds," he adds.

His father nods gravely. "Indeed," he says.

Of course, not everyone who enjoys the adventures of the knight; his horse, Rocinante; and the faithful servant and sidekick, Sancho Panza, are Chávez fans. Julio Molina, a schoolteacher who makes all his eighth-graders read the book, says there may indeed be comparisons between Don Quixote and the president - but not very flattering ones.

"Don Quixote is a crazy, misguided guy who goes around fighting windmills because he thinks they are giants," he says. "Chávez is a crazy guy who is buying weapons and training soldiers because he thinks the US is about to invade."

"The two men are both dreamers," adds Ms. Marcano, "but there the similarities end. Chávez is not as wise and does not have the humor of a Don Quixote. He gets mad when people criticize him."

It might be hard to assess this last point, however, when it comes to this project, because "Operation Dulcinea" has gathered mostly applause. "Who, really, is going to be against reading great literature?" asks Luis Vallenilla, who works at a small bookstore right off Bolivar Plaza.

And inspired by the enthusiastic response, Chávez, once jailed for attempting a coup before finally being elected president in 1998, has called for the publication of 1 million copies of another literary masterpiece, the novel "Les Misérables" by 19th-century French writer Victor Hugo.

No doubt the life of Jean Valjean, imprisoned briefly in his youth before going on to a life of great success and selfless dedication to the downtrodden, is intended to remind Venezuelans of someone.

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