Venezuela is a decidedly challenging place: to live, to describe, to wholly understand. And in the 14 years of Hugo Chávez’s presidency, the contours of the oil-rich Andean nation have become ever more gray and blurred.
There was the good under Chávez: poverty fell, literacy improved, and the poor and long-ignored were given a voice. And then, of course, there was the bad: violence more than doubled from 1998 to 2012, infrastructure crumbled, inflation rose to become the highest in the Western Hemisphere, and democratic institutions were weakened and in some cases trampled.
In one of the more revealing scenes in Rory Carroll’s engaging, highly readable Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Carroll takes the readers to a ranch in the plains region, where he introduces César García, a landowner who initially voted for Chávez “to shake things up.”
Mr. García’s employees voted for Chávez, too, and during his first year in office there was a shared optimism. But slowly the rancher started to feel edged out of the conversation. “Chávez spoke of the nation being reborn ‘para nosotros,’ for us, and the revolution being ‘para todos,’ for everybody.... [But] there was a shift in the president’s tone, a creeping defensive bellicosity.” Suddenly, García, as a landowner, had become “them.”
“García looked with alarm at his laborers, his childhood playmates who never had his privileges and now craned their necks toward the radio to better hear the president. Did they see him that way? An exploiter? How dare Chávez do this!... César García became what Chávez said he was: an enemy of the revolution.”
Scenes like this convey the small, tectonic shifts beneath Chávez’s revolution.
Carroll’s access, garnered over seven years reporting in Caracas for The Guardian, is showcased through the characters readers meet. From a fashion designer who works with newly elite “Boligarchs” (Bolivarian revolutionaries plus oligarchs) and sees the same issues of corruption and elitism as in administrations past, to the president’s personal librarian who could rattle off quotes from Chávez’s revolutionary hero Simón Bolivar, to the drug trafficker whose fate illustrates the speed with which one could rise and fall in grace in today’s Venezuela, readers are helped to see just how challenging it is to bundle Chávez and his revolution into a nutshell. He was this close to being a dictator, but not quite.
Even though opponents “shouted ‘tyrant’ and willed Chávez to act accordingly, he remained a stubborn, unique, indefatigable hybrid: an autocrat and democrat,” says Carroll. “That Chávez dominated and abused state institutions and resources did not change the fact people could still vote against him.”
In another memorable scene, Carroll is invited onto the president’s flagship television show, “Alo Presidente.” He asks (on live television) why the president should have the exclusive right to indefinite reelection. (A failed 2007 constitutional referendum vote would have lifted term limits for the president, but not local governors or mayors).
In response, Chávez railed on Europe (Carroll’s home continent) and the United States, celebrated African heritage in Venezuela, and demanded the British government hand over the Falkland Islands to the Argentine people. Hours later (yes, hours!) Chávez returned to Carroll’s question, comparing himself to an artist trying to design a more beautiful Venezuela.
“I have to finish this picture.... If I give the brush to someone else, they would start to change the colors because they have another vision, start to alter the contours.”
Carroll’s book went to press shortly before Chávez’s death. The world must now wait to see what will happen to the landscape Chávez spent 14 years designing.
Whitney Eulich is the Monitor’s Latin America editor.