BOOK REVIEW: Life, times and legacy of a remarkable dictator

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.
9780857861511 ComandanteblogWritten 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.


Ulsterman is eyewitness to great San Francisco earthquake of 1906

Wednesday, April 18, 1906 proved to be a fateful day for the people of San Francisco. That morning and as the city slept an earthquake measuring 7.9. The earthquake and resulting fire are remembered to this day as the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States alongside the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

One eyewitness to the earthquake of 1906 was a Belfast man and in this week in 1906 a letter written home to a brother detailing his experiences in the doomed city was published in the News Letter.

SFEq06_01The letter captures the apocalyptic mood which prevailed in the devastated city of San Francisco and bears witness to that traumatic time in the city’s history.

He wrote: “The size and importance of the disaster that has befallen Sail Francisco no human being can relate. Such a weird and reckless devastation is beyond the wildest imagination of a Dante’s Inferno.

On the 18th inst, at 6.14 o’clock, San Francisco was aroused by an earthquake which for terror and disaster never before happened in a civilised modern city. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire people were seized with panic and fright, and the damage alone caused by the shake would have taken, months of time and millions of money to repair.

Hardly had the trembling subsided from its deadly work than the cry of ‘Fire’ went up from several downtown parts the city, and in two hours’ time the flames had gained such headway as to be beyond all skill and the facilities of the firefighting appliances available.

Building after building, street after street, went down before the deadly stroke of the flames, and at midnight of the 18th the district bounded by Kearny Street to the city front on the north, and from Sixth Street to the water front on the south of Market Street were abandoned to the flames.

On [the] Thursday the fire continued to rage with deadly fury, licking up street after street on both sides of Market Street, until it reached Van Ness Avenue on the west, and extending as far north as Broadway.

On the south of Market Street the flames proceeded with lightning rapidity through the mission, and did not cease until Twentieth Street was reached.

Terror and inconvenience were added to the horrible situation by the complete collapse of the gas and electric light, telephone and telegraph, the absolute stoppage of every street railway, and the bursting of the water mains throughout the city.

Realising that the entire district east of Van Ness Street was doomed to utter destruction, it was decided to make a last stand at this avenue in the hope of saving the western addition.

Accordingly, under military direction of the United States army and navy forces, the two blocks bounded by Van Ness Street on the west, Larken Street on the east, Union Street on the north, and Market Street on the south, were entirely razed by the aid of gun cotton and dynamite.

Back fires were started, and on the principle that fire under certain conditions fights fire what was started at Van Ness Street rushed on east to meet the deadly flames proceeding from every point.”

The letter home to Belfast continued: “We were never for a moment free of concern and danger from the time the earthquake struck its until late last night, and during the time it is safe to say few people had a moment’s rest or sleep.

Everyone was filled with terror and foreboding as the thousands of homeless men, women, and children, packing and dragging bundles, passed through the streets to places of safety.

What an awful night – no one can describe. Fully 50,000 homeless people are congregated in tents and anything else available in the Presidio and the vacant blocks of land below our house.

DA-SN-03-00962Fully 100,000 people are similarly situated in Golden Gate Park and the Sand Hills to the Cliff House, while scores of thousands have wandered, footsore and tremulous, from the south of Market Street and the mission to the foot hills of South San Francisco and San Mateo County.

Thousands also, who have the means, have gone across the bay to all parts, and the fear and horror of the immediate past and future is beyond description. Wherever the fire swept not an atom of anything consumable was left.”

The letter writer added: “Every store of every description east and south of Van Ness Avenue is gone, and not a vestige of anything remains, except devastated steel, brick, and stone to San Francisco’s former greatness.”

The letter continued: “The loss will certainly ran into the hundreds of millions, and hundreds of men that were reckoned in the millionaire class a week ago are amongst the homeless today.

The disorganisation and collapse of a great city was never so complete or appalling, and what is before us no one can tell.

The earthquake was of such a sudden and terrible character, followed by such a terrible fire, that hardly anyone, either rich or poor, was prepared, or could get time to prepare, or even after the shock had taken place deemed it necessary to prepare for the terrible results that we now see about us.

Thousands of families were obliged to leave their homes with what they wore and could carry in their arms. Thousands are ruined absolutely, and the results of it all no one can tell.

The Government is feeding us all, and you can picture to yourself what it is to see residents of Pacific Avenue standing in line for bread and canned stuff to feed their families.

The Federal troops have taken charge of our neighbourhood, and all the surviving portion of the city and Vigilance Committees at various points have been organised to assist the authorities.

Your father and myself have been sworn in an deputies and take our turn at night. No very serious attempts yet have been made, by the lawless, but attempts are feared, although all soldiers and police have received instructions to kill at sight all law-breakers.

A good many have already been shot and killed for stealing and looting, and this will likely put a stop to such work.”

Concluding his letter home the expatriate Ulsterman remarked: “I am glad to say we are all well, and thankful to be alive.”

Sadly, neither the name of the brother in America who experienced the earthquake or the name of the brother who received the worrying letter back home in Belfast are recorded in the News Letter. But I am sure that the descendants of either men are still living in Northern Ireland and the US.

Three Irish ‘Molly Maguires’ executed in Pennsylvania

The latest American papers to have arrived at the News Letter office in Belfast in April 1878 contained fascinating reports of the execution of three Irishmen at Bloomsburg in Pennsylvania on March 25, 1878 for the murder of a mine superintendent called Alexander W Rea a decade earlier.
It was claimed that were described as members of the notorious Molly Maguires, a secretive American society which had their origins in the Irish Whiteboys and Peep O’Day Boys. The three men were named as Patrick Hester (a native of Co Roscommon and 58 years old when he was executed), Patrick Tully (a native of Co Cavan and 47 years old when he was executed) and Peter McHugh (a native of Co Donegal and 44 years old when he was executed), they were reputed to be members of the Columbia County Molly Maguires.

A drawing the scene at the execution of a number of Molly Maguires in the USA

A drawing the scene at the execution of a number of Molly Maguires in the USA

The papers from America had commented on the murder of Rea by the three men: “The murder was a singularly remarkable one. It differs from all the other crimes that have been proved against the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania in that it was committed, not out of malice, but as a pure ‘matter of business’.”
The American papers told how Alexander Rea had been employed as superintendent of the Coal Ridge Coal Company and he owned property in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Rea it was related was “in the habit of carrying money” with which the miners were to be paid under his carriage seat and it was believed that he carried a large sum of money with him as he drove from his house to the colliery.
On the fateful morning of October 17, 1868 on reaching a point about a mile and a half from his mine he observed a man by the wayside raise his hat “as if by way of signal”. A moment afterwards five men, consisting of McHugh and Tully and two other men who had since that time died as well as “one who has never been captured”, leapt out from the under bush and demanded that Rea hand over his money.
The papers related: “Without a word he alighted and handed his watch and his pocketbook, containing sixty dollars, to them. This was all the money he had with him, as the expected booty had been forwarded to the mine the day before.”
Angry at so little money it was stated that McHugh had declared that would “not be hunted round the world by any living man” for such a little sum of money and with that “the party began discharging their revolvers at Rea, each discharging his weapon once or twice”.
As the shooting began Mr Rea started to run for the relative safety of the woods nearby but before he had “advanced many steps” Tully overtook him placed the muzzle of a revolver close to his ear and fired. Mr Rea fell dead. His body was found the following day, he had been shot six times.
It was noted that Patrick Hester, “a man of some public importance, being tax collector, school director, and supervisor of his county”, was not present at the attack but he was accused of having planned the murder of Mr Rea.
Of character of Hester it was reported: “He bore a bad character, however, and he was arrested, with three others, who were not concerned in the crime, immediately after Mr Rea’s assassination, in response to an offer of eight thousand pounds reward offered for the detection of the guilty parties.” But he was later released when the case collapsed.
The memory of the crime slumbered until 1876 during which time Hester had got into trouble with a local parish priest, who had been battling against the Molly Maguires, who had refused to give a deceased member of the gang a grave in consecrated ground.
Hester and his gang attempted by force to bring the corpse into the graveyard but were put to a rout and Hester was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, two of which he had served when he received a pardon.
Then in 1876, one of the murderers of Mr Rea, a man named Edward J Kelly was arrested for larceny and while in prison gave information on which Hester and the other murderers of Mr Rea were arrested 10 years after the crime.
Of their final days the American papers stated: “They attended in their last days most sedulously to the instructions and religious consolation given them by the Catholic clergymen of the town and met their fate unflinchingly.”

Men appear before court accused of mutiny on steamer

A special court of Bangor Petty Sessions had sat in the seaside town reported the News Letter in April 1898 when, two men were accused of having illegally deserted SS Athos which had been anchored in Bangor Bay.

The men, who appeared before Dr Reuben Bolton, JP, Mr Hugh Ferguson, JP and Colonel Bowlby, RM, were also accused of being guilty of disobedience.

Their surnames were given as Gillan and Hughes and they were both prosecuted by Sergeant Kerr.

Evidence was given by Mr David Barnes of Groomsport to the petty sessions. He said that on the evening in question he had been fishing in Bangor Bay.

He told how the captain of the SS Athos had requested that he take some workmen ashore and it was at this stage that the two defendants jumped into his boat.

Mr Barnes was then asked by the captain of the SS Athos to “put a rope round them” so that the crew could take them aboard the steamer, but Mr Barnes said that he had refused the captain’s request and the two defendants had refused to go back to the SS Athos.

Co Down, Bangor Promenade (1)William Barnes, the father of David Barnes, also spoke at the hearing and gave corroborative testimony in support of the evidence which had been given by his son.

Mr Samuel Young, the deputy superintendent of marine at the custom house in Belfast deposed that he had witnessed the defendant Gillan affixing his “signature or mark” to a document binding him to work as a fireman on the SS Athos.

He added that that document was “now with the ship”. Gillan at this stage remarked that his health was such that he was “not fit to go on the voyage”.

Constable Howard deposed that the coastguards and police had been signalled for by the steamer and that on going out to the steamer that he had been informed by the captain of the SS Athos that there had been a mutiny onboard the steamer.

The captain then directed Constable Howard’s attention “specially” to the two defendants and asked him to arrest them.
Constable Howard told the petty sessions that: “It appeared that they wanted to leave the boat.”

At this stage that the constables who had travelled with him out to the SS Athos then placed the two men under arrest.

It was at this point in the hearing that Gillan had said that he had not mutinied. Gillan told the court: “The skipper would not allow me to get off. I was too ill to go on the voyage.”

Colonel Bowlby asked: “Did the men at the time say anything about illness?”

To which Constable Howard replied: “When we were bringing them ashore Gillan said something about his back being sore.”

Gillan replied that he had complained to the captain but that he had refused to allow him to go ashore.

In his defence Hughes told the court that he would have gone on the voyage if he had been given some clothes.

He told the court: “I had no clothes with me beyond what I had on my person. I got an advance note at the last minute and had sent to procure clothes on the strength of it but they did not arrive until the ship had left Belfast.”

He added: “The vessel left before we knew where we were and we could not get off. We had to get somewhere and we decided to get off at Bangor.” He added: “I did not sign articles.”

Replying to the last statement from Hughes the petty sessions clerk informed the magistrates: “Hughes’s name is not on this form (produced) at all.

Mr Young told the magistrates: “The captain of the Athos had the original of the document and he was bound before he left a port to give a copy of it on pain of a fine of £10 to the proper authorities. Hughes’s name is not on the copy.”

Sergeant Kerr asked: “Might it not be on the original with the captain and not on the copy?”

To which Mr Young replied: “It might be, but it is not at all likely. If it were the master of the ship would be liable to a fine of £10.”

Sergeant Kerr continued: “That has nothing to do with the matter. If the master of the vessel has committed an offence it is for the Board of Trade to deal with him.”

At this stage in the hearing Hughes repeated that he had not signed the articles.

He told the magistrates: “I was called onto the ship which immediately left Belfast and I was told that I could sign on the ship. I did not sign at all. I would not have objected to go on the voyage if I had had clothes.”

Gillan then repeated his claim that he was too ill to go on the voyage. To which Colonel Bowlby asked: “Then why did you sign to go on it?”

He answered the magistrate: “It was three days from the time I signed until the vessel sailed and I took ill in the meantime, I did not know the boat was going away when she did or I would not have gone in her. They gave me no choice to get off. All my clothes are on the vessel.”

Hughes then turned to the magistrates and requested that they let him off “this time” and that he would “never leave a ship in such a manner again”.

He explained that he was the sole support of an aged father and that if he were sent to jail his father would have to go to the workhouse.

The chairman of the petty sessions said that the desertion charged had been “distinctly proved” against the defendants but that the court would only order the forfeiture of any clothes that were on the boat belonging to defendants and any wages which were due to them.

Newspaper editors’ fury at insult against ‘honest’ press

A remarkable row broke out in April 1845 between the organisers of a grand banquet to honour Sir Henry Pottinger, the first governor of Hong Kong, who had returned to his native town after returning from his time in the Far East.

The row between the organisers of the banquet and the press evolved from the organisers “very singular attempt” to exclude reporters from the dinner.

When the News Letter had challenged the exclusion the editor was informed “of this most strange and unusual determination” of the committee to allow reporters only from the Northern Whig and the Commercial Chronicle and that “none should be granted to the other town journals”.

Reflecting on the decision the News Letter commented: “We felt certainly no little astonished and indignant at this intelligence. The slight cast upon the News Letter, the oldest newspaper in Belfast, and so associated with the history of the town, and its many time honoured and prosperous families, was alone sufficient to excite our indignation; but the attempt to exclude not ourselves only, but the whole of our town contemporaries, except the two mentioned, we felt to be not only insulting, but a wanton act of injustice to the press of Belfast.”

Accordingly a meeting of the editors of the Belfast newspapers was immediately called and the News Letter “rejoiced” that its “contemporaries” were of “the same mind with us in this matter”.
The meeting was held in the News Letter office, it was attended by James Alexander Henderson of the News Letter, James Simms of the Northern Whig, John C Anderson of the Belfast Chronicle, George Troup of the Banner Of Ulster, Neal McDevitt of the Vindicator, James Withers of the Ulster Conservative and Robert George Harper of the Protestant Journal.

Of this meeting the News Letter noted: “While all strongly condemned the resolution of the committee, we feel bound to state, and to their honour be it recorded, that none more promptly and warmly protested against the resolution, than the editors of the Chronicle and the Whig.”

At the meeting the following resolution was unanimously adopted: “That we owe it to our dignity, and to the independence of the press, to express our unqualified disapproval of the conduct of the committee managing the dinner to Sir Henry Pottinger, in invidiously excluding the large proportion of the reporters of the press; and that we feel called upon to declare our determination not to report the proceedings, unless admittance be given to reporters from all of the Belfast newspaper press.”

Old painting of Belfast showing Chichester Quay and High Street

Old painting of Belfast showing Chichester Quay and High Street

It was also resolved: “That Messrs Simms, Anderson, and Troup, be requested to wait on the committee of management of the Pottinger dinner, with the above resolution, in order to learn the final decision of that committee on this subject.”

The resolutions were conjointly signed James Simms, editor of the Northern Whig, and James A Henderson, editor of the Belfast News Letter.

The resolutions from the Belfast press prompted a speedy reply and a climb down from the committee which was received on the same day as the press resolutions had been agreed.

Despatched by Mr S Thomson it stated: “I have been requested by the committee for managing the dinner to Sir Henry Pottinger, to inform you, that, previous to receiving your communication relative to admitting the press, arrangement had been made for accommodating one reporter from each of the following papers: Northern Whig, Vindicator, Commercial Chronicle, News Letter, Banner of Ulster and the two weekly papers; and further to say, that tickets of admission for those of the above, not already supplied, may be had by applying to Mr Johnston, at the entrance to the music hall.”

That should have been the end of the matter and indeed the News Letter stated that it had been hoped that “the unpleasant affair” had ended and accordingly the newspaper resolved “for the sake of the distinguished guest, we determined to make no public allusion to it”.

But, added the News Letter, the “strange an unaccountable” treatment of reporters at the dinner rendered the silence of the press impossible.

When the reporters reached the music hall to attend the banquet they were “thrust apart from the company” into a place “most inconvenient for them to take notes”.

The News Letter noted: “The tables set before them were narrow and exceedingly ill-placed.”
For about half an hour after the dinner had commenced, “and not until the second course had been introduced”, were any “eatables” offered to the reporters.

The News Letter commented: “[And] then, two haisins of cold soup, considered not the more tempting from the fact, that into them had been cast the refuse soup of the already satisfied guests, were placed before the gentlemen of the press. We need scarcely say, that the soup was at once rejected, and ordered away. Two pieces of cold meat – it was determined the reporters should not want for coldness at least – were, after some delay, next produced; and they, also, were very properly discarded. Half an hour succeeded and then two bottles of wine, it was supposed, were laid on the table, but these lay untouched during the evening.”

A further report of the disgraceful treatment of the reporters was provided by he Northern Whig.

It recounted: “And this was the entertainment furnished, by the conductors and providers of the Pottinger dinner, to the reporters for the Belfast press! Some came away to consult if they should not all withdraw. They were induced, upon public grounds, to return; though we certainly could not have complained, if they had refused.

“These simple statements of facts we own we make with feelings of humiliation. It is most unpleasant to know that such conduct could take place in Belfast; and it is to us very galling to find a number of intelligent and respectable men, having an arduous duty to perform, and without whose aid all the business of the night would have been nearly as a blank, so treated.

“In no other place in the United Kingdom could such a thing have occurred; our contemporaries and ourselves will be to blame, if anything of the sort be ever again submitted to. One reason assigned to us for the original intention to exclude a part of the reporters, was economy; as matters have turned out, we think the cost of their entertainment cannot be much.”

The News Letter justified its stance in the matter by stating: “We have referred to this matter at such length, because we deem it to be of great, importance. It concerns the interests of the public; and, we have no doubt, but that it will much engage their attention.

“It is well known, that if, in any way, the press is shackled, the community suffers. Reports of public occurrences are neither to be one sided nor cramped; and it is only by the fair and honourable emulation of’ competing journals that these evils are to be avoided. This emulation should ever be encouraged by all who would uphold an independent and honest press.”

BOOK REVIEW: The truth and mistruths of our violent history

The Shadow Of A Year: The 1641 Rebellion in Irish History and Memory by John Gibney. Published by University of Wisconsin Press, Paperback, priced £25.50.

The year 1641 has always cast a long and dark shadow across our history. Even now, almost four centuries later, the events of that year remain disputed and very much a raw nerve to the psyche of the communities on this island.
In October of that year rebellion erupted in Ireland. Dispossessed Irish Catholics rose up against British Protestant settlers who they held to be responsible for their plight. It was very much the final cast of the die for the Catholics.

This uprising, the first significant sectarian rebellion in Irish history, gave rise to a decade of war that would culminate in the brutal re-conquest of Ireland by Oliver Cromwell. It also set in motion one of the most enduring and acrimonious debates in Irish history.

THE SHADOW OF A YEAR - webMany questions remain about the 1641 rebellion. Was the 1641 rebellion a justified response to dispossession and repression? Or was it an unprovoked attempt at sectarian genocide? And these questions will probably always remain hotly debated.

Historian John Gibney as part of the University of Wisconsin Press’s History of Ireland and the Irish Diaspora Series has bravely examined three centuries of this debate in his new book The Shadow Of A Year: The 1641 Rebellion in Irish History and Memory.

The struggle to establish and interpret the facts of the past was also a struggle over the present: if Protestants had been slaughtered by vicious Catholics, this provided an ideal justification for maintaining Protestant privilege.

If, on the other hand, Protestant propaganda had inflated a few deaths into a vast and brutal “massacre”, this justification was groundless.

Gibney shows how politicians, historians, and polemicists have represented (and misrepresented) 1641 over the centuries, making a sectarian understanding of Irish history the dominant paradigm in the consciousness of the Irish Protestant and Catholic communities alike.

There is balance in Gibney’s examination of how the story of the 1641 rebellion has been interpreted and re-interpreted. Chapter one, ‘The Sad Story of Our Miseries’, explores Protestant interpretations, whilst the second chapter, ‘The Naked Truth of This Tragical History’, presents the Catholic interpretation. His third chapter explores ‘historical facts’ and ‘stupendous falsehoods’ and how an Irish insurrection challenges a scholarly narrative that allows both sides of the argument to coalesce.

The Shadow Of A Year is a worthy exploration of myths and untruths of the 1641 rebellion. While the book is somewhat heavy going, giving the subject matter it is hard to see how Gibney could ever have simplified the book, this is possible the best account to date of the insurrection.

Gibney earned his doctorate in history at Trinity College Dublin and is author of Ireland and the Popish Plot (Palgrave/Macmillan). A guide for the popular Historical Walking Tours of Dublin offered by Historical Insights Ireland, he is a frequent contributor to History Ireland magazine and scholarly journals. He has been a research fellow at the University Of Notre Dame and the National University of Ireland Galway.