May 18, 2013
Marc Cooper on Hugo Chavez
Posted on Oct 11, 2007
By Marc Cooper
Venezuela’s fiery, self-proclaimed socialist president, Hugo Chavez, had been dreaming of and conspiring, sometimes in tragicomic ways, to seize state power ever since he was a young military officer in the late 1970s. But his sense of timing in finally executing the task has been simply staggering. Consider:
After a failed coup attempt in 1992 and after building a following as a populist alternative to Venezuela’s discredited two traditional political parties, Chavez was voted into office in 1998. His tenure has fortuitously overlapped that of the most unpopular U.S. president in recent memory, offering Chavez an unprecedented opportunity to posture as the Western Hemisphere’s David against a faltering and reviled Goliath. Because the former chief antagonist of Yankee imperialism, Fidel Castro, hovers near death and has effectively been retired, the path is clear.
By Bart Jones
Steerforth, 568 pages
By Gregory Wilpert
Verso, 352 pages
By Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Random House, 352 pages
And over the last decade a tenfold rise in the price of oil—Venezuela’s life-blood export—has flooded Chavez’s coffers with tens of billions of petrodollars. Never before has a Third World revolutionary leader had so much dough to spread around to fatten both his domestic and international constituencies.
A mere decade ago, Latin America was in the thrall of conservative, pro-American and free-market regimes, all enthusiastic subscribers to what’s been called the Washington Consensus. But after repeated failure to see much if any of the prosperity promised, the wheel has turned. With only a few exceptions (notably Colombia and Peru), every major Latin American country is now governed by some sort of center-left, leftist, or even socialist regime, with Chavez happily presiding as the loudest, if not the leading, voice.
But is Chavez truly a revolutionary? Has he genuinely embarked on an innovative path of democratic radical reform and redistributive social justice that he has dubbed “21st Century Socialism”? Or is he, like Argentina’s Juan Peron before him and countless previous caudillos, just one more former ex-military demagogue more interested in personal aggrandizement? Or is he some combination of the two, perhaps an updated model of Castro, his closest ally? Is he pioneering a new path between savage capitalism and failed Soviet-style communism? Or is he a power-grubbing wiseacre who governs increasingly by decree, shuts down opposition media, and relishes the attention he galvanizes by calling Bush an “asshole” and “Satan” while lavishing the term “brother” on Libya’s Muammar Kadafy and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
A rat-tat-tat of three nearly simultaneously published biographies of Chavez addresses these questions, and, taken individually, none of them provide much of a satisfyingly nuanced answer (though the fact that a Venezuelan president has three books published about him in English punctuates the hemispheric if not global fascination that Chavez now commands).
“Hugo!: The Hugo Chavez Story From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution,” published by Steerforth Press, is by Newsday reporter Bart Jones and stands as the most authoritative and best-researched among this new crop of studies, and one with rather a unique rooting. Jones arrived in Venezuela in 1992 and worked in some of the poorest barrios as a Maryknoll missionary just as then army paratrooper Col. Chavez failed to seize power in a putsch. After stringing for some Catholic publications, Jones was given a job as an AP reporter and covered Venezuelan politics from a more mainstream perch. And while Jones’ Maryknoll past has been laundered out of his official dust-jacket bio, his passion for justice and for the poor of Venezuela—to his credit—permeates his text. To his credit, except when it gets in the way of his otherwise extensive reporting.
The compelling story of Chavez’s rise as the impoverished son of provincial school teachers into and through the military and right into today’s international headlines is scrupulously gathered and expertly assembled by Jones. He offers insight into the passion for justice, if not lust for actual revenge against Venezuela’s tiny and indifferent elite, that forged the Chavez we know today. “Hugo Chavez touched the souls of the impoverished,” Jones writes, “because he was one of them. He grew up at a time when Venezuela’s oil wealth was creating fabulous fortunes for a fortunate few.”
Jones also excels in providing sufficient historical context to understand Chavez’s ideological formation: his obsessive, if not fanatical, infatuation at an early age with legendary 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar (hence Chavez’s call for a “Bolivarian Revolution”); his deep (and I would argue disturbing) faith in the military as an instrument of national salvation; and the enduring impression left on him by the experience of the short-lived military-led reform regime of the late 1960s and the 1970s headed by Peruvian Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado.
The Venezuelan leader’s escalating battles with the Bush administration—which was an embarrassingly enthusiastic booster of the failed military coup against Chavez five years ago—are also vividly depicted. Jones does a comprehensive job of reminding us just how many of the old Reagan-era interventionists from the Iran-Contra days have been recycled into the Bush administration and how their knee-jerk Cold World views of continental relationships remain permafrosted.
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