Hero and villain

Comandante: Inside Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, by Rory Carroll, Canongate, RRP£20/Penguin Press, RRP$27.95, 320 pages

When Hugo Chávez took office as Venezuelan president in 1999, his appeal in the country seemed almost universal. Even many of the old petro-state’s entrenched beneficiaries, the elites with their flats in Paris, London, New York and Miami, welcomed a fresh face to shake up an ossified political system. The poor identified with his dark skin, folksy manner and confidence in speaking truth to power. Here, it seemed, was a leader with the vision, social commitment and broad base to break down the structural barriers that had marginalised so many.

Over the next 14 years, access to education, housing, medical care and food did increase, thanks to Cuban advisers and high oil prices. Chávez, who died this week after a two-year battle with cancer, built a deep well of support – love is not too strong a word – among those whose lives he improved. But the bluster, the provocations, the nationalisations and the executive power grab left another significant swathe of Venezuelans ready for an alternative to chávismo. National pride and social inclusion commingled with economic mismanagement and a creeping authoritarian streak.

For Chávez, taking on his own elite meant challenging US influence. Stuck in the self-defeating parlour game of tilting at the left in Latin America, especially under George W. Bush, Washington too often played the foil, and not just by appearing to support the outcome of a short-lived coup in 2002 or by funding and otherwise providing tea and sympathy to his opposition. The foreign policy doctrine of regime change, the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo – all gave Chávez fodder on the international stage as well.

Having been kidnapped while reporting from Iraq, Rory Carroll was no stranger to hostile environments when he took on his next assignment as the Guardian’s Latin America bureau chief, based in Caracas. It was just as well: though Venezuela was no war zone, Carroll arrived in a country with the highest murder rate in Latin America, a crumbling infrastructure, ubiquitous corruption, Orwellian bureaucracy and, for foreign journalists such as him, a virtual blackout of government sources.

Carroll found no shortage of material. Comandante is a compellingly written, keenly reported portrait of Venezuela from 2006-2012. Carroll has enormous respect for Chávez: the politician, warrior, Machiavellian, strategist, actor, reader, wordsmith and, in Gabriel García Márquez’s description, “illusionist”. He writes with tremendous pathos in explaining Chávez’s appeal to the millions of poor Venezuelans who for decades felt, and largely were, invisible to the ruling elite.

He has little sympathy with the opposition, which emerges as narcissistic or simply outfoxed. Yet he also explains why so many Venezuelans who once saw Chávez as a change they could believe in have since concluded that he was no better, and perhaps much worse, than those who came before him.

None of these themes will feel especially new to readers of Richard Gott, another Guardian stalwart, or the recently deceased Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coronil. But how often do we come across a book of non-fiction in which virtually every sentence, not just every page, carries an unexpected image or evocative turn of phrase? Carroll takes the prize on this count.

Comandante is as severe, yet as tenderly written an indictment of Chávez as any we are likely to come across, at least in the English language. How could so many Venezuelans, even those who were not the primary financial beneficiaries (of whom there are many), remain so entranced? Was Chávez really that much smarter than so many of his fallen, exiled or befuddled opponents?

Published as the former president’s designated successor plans for chávismo without Chávez and the opposition regroups for another election, Comandante, of course, reads like an obituary. “By compelling a grossly unequal society to acknowledge its invisible underclass,” writes Carroll, “Chávez wove himself so deeply into the nation’s fabric that the poorest, most wretched corners of Venezuela would surely continue to adore ‘mi comandante’ long after he was buried. What politician does not dream of such feats?” Carroll left his Caracas bureau before he could witness the denouement. But he didn’t need to stay to pose the essential question: “All that charisma, talent, energy, hope, and money – for what?” Or to grieve for “a freewheeling, gregarious culture lost in angry, confected polarisation”.

During the cold war, there was a certain logic to thinking about Latin America in left-right terms – as a battlefield for guerrillas, juntas and their outside backers. But Venezuela never really fitted that template. Chávez’s legacy is hard to predict but in his absence, perhaps, we will be able to discern that the country is far more complex than el comandante or his critics made it seem.

Julia Sweig is director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of ‘Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know’ (OUP)

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