On March 5, Hugo Chávez’s extraordinary good luck ran out at last. After decades of evading an endless string of opponents — from personal poverty to the United States government — Venezuela’s democratically elected strongman finally succumbed to the one enemy he couldn’t defeat. Even his ending was vintage Chávez. The perpetual showman spent the last months of his life ruling Venezuela Oz-like, by remote control from his sickbed (he even missed his own inauguration on Jan. 10). All of which makes this the perfect time for the release of Rory Carroll’s “Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela,” a sort of political obituary for the self-declared savior of Venezuela — a charismatic champion of the poor who, during his 14 years in office, ground one of Latin America’s richest states into the dust.
Carroll, who spent six years covering Venezuela for The Guardian of London, frames his book as a study of how Chávez managed it. That is, how a poor kid from the sticks once known as “Goofy” went on, after serving jail time for a failed coup, to win three elections and endless referendums while creating what Carroll calls “a laboratory of power and charisma that veered between hope, dread and farce,” concentrating ever more power in his hands, eviscerating his country’s once-admired democratic institutions, outfoxing its powerful conservative aristocracy and thumbing his nose at Washington.
Carroll’s thesis, borrowed from a line by Gabriel García Márquez, is that Chávez did it by magic — that is, through his skills as a master “illusionist.” A prodigiously gifted manipulator of men and the news media, Chávez used his carefully cultivated dominance of Venezuela’s airwaves — as well as torrents of petrodollars — to win over the masses and stage “what he called the Bolivarian revolution, a self-styled radical effort to transform state and society into a vision worthy of Bolívar, a beacon of democracy, socialism and enlightenment.”
As Carroll shows through scattershot anecdotes — the book eschews linear narrative or argumentation for the piling up of closely detailed vignettes — Chávez started out as a fairly earnest reformer. Having won power in 1999 by promising to make Venezuela a more equitable society, Chávez initially impressed even conservative critics and nervous financial markets. But after a few years in office, he lost patience with the slow pace and frustrations of democratic governance, and turned instead to more expedient strategies: the use of Marxist rhetoric and irresponsible handouts to Venezuela’s lower classes; the intimidation of government ministers (he went through more than 180 in about a decade), who eventually abandoned all standards in their desperate attempts to keep the mercurial jefe happy; and the taunting of the country’s old guard, which so enraged conservatives that they turned to undemocratic tactics themselves, further cementing Chávez’s appeal with the poor.
These stratagems — buffoonish, unsettling, entertaining at times and chilling at others — worked spectacularly for a while. Chávez, a charismatic performer with seemingly endless energy, would hold marathon weekly television appearances during which he sang, cajoled, hectored. He could appear as “hero, demon or clown,” lecturing audiences on farming techniques one moment and then bewildering them the next by declaring that life on Mars may have been destroyed by capitalism.
But then the magic began to fade. No sooner would Chávez announce a lavish new project than he’d lose interest and allow it to languish. Venezuela, long the envy of its neighbors, slowly rotted from neglect, sinking into “moneyed dysfunction” — the fate of a system “led by a masterful politician who happened to be a disastrous manager.” Finally, after years of riding the sugar binge of Chávez’s populist politics, which left the country “flabby, enfeebled and import-addicted,” much of the public lost enthusiasm for their latter-day caudillo. Though Chávez managed to win election to a third term in October, the margin of victory was slimmer than in the past, and Chávez faced an uncertain future — until cancer resolved the issue.
Though efforts to underscore the inherent absurdity of autocrats and their personality cults are nothing new — consider the scholarly work of Chaplin, Charles, in “The Great Dictator” — and though Carroll’s reporter’s tics become tedious at times (even a book on Latin America doesn’t need so many descriptions of meals and mustaches), “Comandante” provides an impressively well-researched and readable portrait. With new elections scheduled for April 14 and Chávez’s canonization already well under way — only advanced corporeal decay forced his successor, Nicolás Maduro, to abandon plans to embalm him for all time — Carroll’s book should serve as a useful reminder of what el Comandante did and didn’t achieve, how he got away with it and the danger of statesmen-as-showmen whose promises are too good to be true.
Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela
By Rory Carroll
Illustrated. 302 pp. The Penguin Press. $27.95.