Commandante: Inside Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela by Rory Carroll. Published by Canongate Books, priced £20.
HUGO Chávez is a phenomenon. He has been compared to Napoléon, Nasser, Perón, and Castro, but the truth is there has never been a leader like him.
He was democratically elected, reigned like a monarch from a digital throne, and provokes adoration and revulsion in equal measure.
Future historians will study his rule for what it says about the early 21st century.
But how did a charismatic autocrat seduce not just a nation but a significant part of world opinion? How did he make people laugh and weep and applaud, as if on command? And how does he continue to stay in power despite the crumbling of Venezuela?
When he first came to power in 1999, Chávez became a symbol of hope and freedom for his people. On election night he famously declared: “Venezuela is emerging from a terrible night.”
Yet, in his 14 years as president, Chávez seized control of the lucrative Venezuelan oil industry, allowed basic government functions to wither, jailed political opponents and courted Castro and Ahmadinejad, all while occupying much of Venezuela’s airwaves with his long-running television show, Aló Presidente!.
In Comandante: Inside Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela by award winning journalist Rory Carroll breaches the walls of Miraflores Palace to tell the inside story of Chávez’s life and his political court in Caracas.
Written while Chávez was still alive though gravely ill, has a different purpose. Rory Carroll was the Guardian’s chief South American correspondent for five years, based in Caracas.
He observed at first hand many of the events covered in the book and interviewed Chávez, other senior members of his party and numerous ordinary citizens. He also listened to Chávez’s interminable diatribes monopolising most of the permitted television and radio channels.
The public Chávez is brought to the fore in Carroll’s book, it explores in small details, sometimes microscopic ones such as the fact that he took three minutes for a vigorous morning shower and detested body odour in others. “He always sought eye contact and would continue scrutinising his audience left to right, right to left, a minesweeper of faces, appraising expressions, we are told.”
But what of the Chávez legacy? There is both good and bad, champions of Chávez’s time in power will always put forward what they say has been achieved and those critical of the Chávez supremacy as nothing but a damning failure of his radical and socialistic world view.
Most enduring and positive legacy is his shattering of Venezuela’s peaceful coexistence with poverty, inequality, and social exclusion. He was not the first political leader who placed the poor at the centre of the national conversation. Nor was he the first to use a spike in oil revenue to help the poor.
Carroll suggests that he was bipolar or suffered from depression. What is certainly true is that it is hard to find any other political leader like him. He defies classification.
But on the flip of the Venezuelan bolívar critics of Chávez say that after 14 years in power, Chávez did not leave the nation a stronger democracy or a more prosperous economy.
This despite his constant reminders that he had finally empowered the long-excluded poor and the fact that he presided over the longest and most exuberant increase in oil revenue in Venezuela’s history.
Critics of Chávez also highlight that the fact that the Venezuelan economy is in a shambles is even more damaging to both the country and the legacy of Chávez when it is remembered that his term in office coincided with a boom in commodity prices and the presence of an international financial system flush with cash and willing to lend to countries like Venezuela.
Comandante has been updated since the death of Chávez from cancer earlier this month Carroll blends the lyricism and strangeness of magical realism with the brutal, ugly truth of authoritarianism – a powerful combination reminiscent of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor – Rory Carroll has written the definitive account of Hugo Chávez’s presidency and the legacy he has left behind.