IT SEEMS that Hugo Chávez is on his last legs. Venezuela’s president has been battling cancer since the summer of 2011.
He disappeared from the public eye in December, too sick even to attend his inauguration on Jan 10. The only news of him comes from his Twitter account. Rumours abound that he’s in palliative care. What’s for sure is that Venezuela has never seen the likes of him before.
Ruthless, mercurial, woefully half-baked in his economic thinking but resolute in his defence of the poor, his personality comes vividly to light in Rory Carroll’s timely, nuanced biography, Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Carroll, who was born and raised in Dublin, lived in Venezuela’s capital Caracas for six years from Sept 2006 while covering South America for The Guardian.
“One of the reasons I started to write the book is because there are so many misconceptions about Chávez,” says Carroll. “I was always struck when I would leave Venezuela to Ireland, to the UK, or maybe the United States, how polarised and simplistic the view-points about Hugo Chávez were.
“People seemed to think he was either this demonic, quasi-Stalinist despot or that he was this extraordinary champion of the poor who was building a shiny city on the hill, a socialist beacon in Venezuela. Both were caricatures and neither was accurate yet people would often have really strong feelings about them — that he was either a monster or a hero. To me, having lived in Caracas for so long, it was obvious that he was much more complex.”
Chávez was born in 1954 in a small pueblo in Los Llanos, western Venezuela’s vast, grassy marshlands. One of six boys, and the son of primary school teachers, he was effectively raised by a loving grandmother in her small adobe home, which lacked electricity and running water.
His days as an altar boy, notes Carroll, didn’t last long (“he rang the bells with such delight that everyone recognised his ring”). He found a deeper calling, however, with baseball, which ultimately led him to join the army, with a view to capitalising on its sports academy.
Chávez’s dreams of becoming a major leagues pitcher evaporated but he became enthused by the active, organised life he experienced in the army, and the time it afforded him to indulge his passion for political science and, in particular, the inspiring drama of Simon Bolivar’s career.
Known as “The Liberator”, the 19th-century Venezuelan rebel found escape routes for several South American countries, including his native country, from Spanish colonial rule.
In barracks, Chávez also grew increasingly indignant at Venezuela’s social inequalities. None of the riches that poured from oil reserves discovered in 1914 found their way to the country’s barrios, the shanty towns that have pockmarked Caracas since the 1950s. (Oil flows like water in Venezuela; it costs about 50c to fill a car tank with petrol.) Having led an abortive coup d’état in 1992 — which became famous for his televised message that brought it to a close; the rebellion was over “por ahora”, for now, he promised — he came to power via the ballot box, sweeping into Miraflores, the country’s presidential palace in Dec 1998, having garnered 56% of the vote.
His supporters were mesmerised by his charm. A sample of his early exchanges on the world stage gives an indication of his disarming, boyish manner: He took off on a sprint along the Great Wall of China; he greeted Vladimir Putin with a judo pose; and he gave Japan’s president, who was not supposed to be touched, a hug.
“One striking feature of Chávez is his charisma and his communication skills,” says Carroll. “I don’t think I’ve seen a leader use television and mass media as effectively as he did. I’ve seen Bill Clinton in action and Silvio Berlusconi and others, and yet Chávez really was something else. He turned his presidency into almost a form of The Truman Show so much of it was on television. He used the medium to dominate the country and to set the agenda.
“A lot of the clowning that he became famous for was actually quite shrewd because he always wanted to keep himself in the limelight, to keep the political agenda at home [upfront], and to keep his profile high abroad. Buffoonery was part of that because he knew that it would make headlines and it would keep people watching. It wasn’t him being deliberately silly; it was often tactical and had a political motivation behind it. To observe that up close was fascinating.”
Until illness struck, Chávez conducted much of his government live on television during his Sunday show, Aló Presidente, a captivating mix of presidential decree, ministerial sackings, song (he’s not a bad singer), poetry, and flirting — on Valentine’s Day 2000, he told his soon-to-be former wife: “Marisabel, you’re going to get yours tonight.”
The show was broadcast across eight stations, along with interminable state messages, known as “cadenas”, or chains, which regularly interrupted normal broadcasting on television and radio. And, boy, can Chávez talk. He’s blessed with prodigious stamina, once buoyed, famously, by imbibing, according to one report, up to 26 cups of espresso a day. Profiling him for a Colombian magazine in 1999, Gabriel García Márquez was struck by his “body of reinforced concrete”, which adds, of course, to the poignancy of his physical collapse.
His critics aren’t lamenting his demise. He’s caused a schism in Venezuelan society by his aggressive language, his expropriation of banks and businesses, the unsavoury alliance with Cuba, and his shameful part in “la lista Tascón”, a list published on the internet of 3m people who opposed him in a 2004 recall referendum. Its publication destroyed thousands and thousands of lives, blighting the careers of many on the list, and sometimes of their family members. It made “sectarianism official”, says Carroll.
“One of Chávez’s achievements is that he made many poor Vene-zuelans feel that they’ve a greater sense of dignity and a sense of being empowered. Poor Venezuelans will tell you this. Here they had a president who looks like them, who spoke like them, that they didn’t have to apologise for having darker skin than the paler-skinned Venezuelans; that it didn’t matter if they didn’t speak perfect Spanish; that Venezuela was as much their country as it was the rich’s. Here was a guy that was on their side.
“But the downside was that he polarised the country so much. He made a lot of Venezuelans, not just the rich but the middle class, and some poor, excluded from this process, and the feeling that they were being called enemies, vampires, squealing pigs, to the extent that a lot of Venezuelans are repelled by him.
“There are people who adore Chávez and people who despise him. This mutual incomprehension has never reached the stage of civil war; a lot of it is on the level of rhetoric, but it is real — this level of mutual contempt, and it was not necessary.”
Carroll adds: “He will be remembered as an illusionist. He promised so much and he was such a magnetic character and yet his legacy is one of decay and ruin and squandered potential. He had immense political talents. He had the immense good fortune to take power at a time when Venezuela enjoyed an unprecedented oil boom yet he has left a country that is basically in ruins. At the same time his legend is that he retained popularity.”
* Rory Carroll’s Comandante: Inside Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela is published by Canongate. It costs €15.
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