Marc Cooper on Hugo Chavez
Posted on Oct 11, 2007
By Marc Cooper
Indeed, Jones bookends his narrative with a write-up of two prolonged, late-night personal encounters with Chavez during which he, quite obviously, succumbs to the president’s legendary charisma and magnetism. There are a few too many fawning references to “El Comandante” in those passages for my taste—reading eerily similar to the writings of those who were seduced by Castro in those famous all-night marathon interviews in the 1960s and 1970s only to find, later, that Comandante Castro would personally hold power for a full half-century. Funny, isn’t it, how regimes that claim to be building a nation of new socialist men can find only one man worthy of actually ruling.
Nary a trace of that deference to Chavez can be found in “Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela’s Controversial President,” published by Random House. Venezuelan journalists Christina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka do all they can, and only fairly well, to conceal their palpable contempt for their subject. Translated from the original Spanish-language edition, the biography carries an introduction by economist Moises Naim, who served as a Venezuelan Cabinet member during the 1990s. It was Naim’s austerity policies that helped spark the deadliest mass uprising in Venezuelan history and provided rocket fuel for the eventual rise of Chavez.
By Bart Jones
Steerforth, 568 pages
By Gregory Wilpert
Verso, 352 pages
By Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka
Random House, 352 pages
No wonder, then, that this particular account of Chavez’s life conveniently omits any mention of the Caracazo riots that cost hundreds of lives, discredited the ruling political class, and cleared the way for Chavez. Indeed, any characterization of Chavez’s opposition and its sometimes excessively exuberant dismissal of the needs of the poor, or of democracy itself, has been as much as airbrushed out of this volume. To be sure, the authors take a few stabs at evenhandedness, as in this description of the open warfare that sizzles between Chavez—who can often spend three, four or seven hours at a time on state TV—and the rest of the opposition-led media: “[Venezuela] is a country that it is intoxicated, overinformed, saturated by the manner in which one single story is told over and over again, subjected to the most endless and exhausting media diatribes. In the middle of this cross fire, the everyday citizen ends up in the worst position of all. ... On several occasions, the media associated with the opposition have made the mistake of disseminating information that was later discovered to be false. ... The state-run media, on the other hand, have become veritable propaganda brigades that seem willing to stop at nothing in their defense of the president.”
So much for the he-said/she-said portion of this book, the remaining bulk of which is devoted to a one-sided but nevertheless revealing and often quite amusing rundown of the foibles and follies of El Comandante. Chavez wasn’t interviewed for this book nor were any of his current (as opposed to former) supporters, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some valuable baubles to be sorted through. For example, just how much government function Chavez has turned over to the military is eye-opening. The authors report that by four years into his tenure Chavez had a military man as vice president as well as the heads of several ministries, the national oil company, the national network of gasoline distributors, the customs office, several major banks, and many key transport, telecom, and broadcast agencies. Military officers also sit as governors of several Venezuelan states as well as members of Congress and as officials of his governing political party.
Unfortunately, the authors are more interested in Chavez’s ex-wives and girlfriends, his recently acquired taste for Brioni and Gucci, the inordinate amount of time he spends globetrotting (more than you can imagine) and the painfully precise totaling up of how much time he spends in front of TV cameras. That two U.S. administrations might have embarked on crusades to undermine him and other, thornier parts of the Chavez story pretty much go missing. However, the Washington-phile authors do offer an implicit warning that the overtly hostile U.S. policy toward Chavez might be counterproductive. When Chavez first came into power in 1998, say the authors, the Clinton administration “misread” him and failed to sufficiently co-opt him. There’s a similar suggestion that the Bush administration’s “indifference” (itself a gross understatement) to the failed 2002 coup against Chavez cost American credibility and only strengthened Chavez’s hand.
If your tastes run to reading through 300 pages brimming with phrases like “the dialectic of counter-revolution and radicalization,” then Gregory Wilpert’s “Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government,” published by Verso, might be your preferred selection among the latest Chavez biographies. If there’s going to be a Lincoln Steffens of the Bolivarian Revolution, it’s Wilpert. A former Fulbright scholar who has lived in Caracas through much of the Chavez period, Wilpert has become one of the most prolific of American admirers of El Comandante. After voicing a few doubts about the immediate course of Chavez’s project, Wilpert affirms he has seen the red-tinged future: “Venezuela’s Bolivarian ...Socialist project remains one of the best beacons of hope for a newly reinvigorated left in Latin America,” he writes. “As the Chavez government moves forward and experiments and sometimes stumbles with new forms of politico-economic organization, it leads by example and provides inspiration that a better world is indeed possible.”
Wilpert does a dutiful, albeit tedious, job of systematically exploring and mostly praising every aspect of Chavez’s economic, social, political, and foreign policy. But gingerly tap-dance as he might around some inconvenient truths, even a misty-eyed Wilpert can’t fully avoid pointing to what he calls the “internal obstacles” facing the future of Chavismo: “the persistence of a patronage culture, the nearly complete dependence of the Bolivarian movement on Chavez, and Chavez’s own top-down governance.” Translation: massive corruption and a slide toward one-man rule.
After a comfortable re-election at the end of last year, Chavez kicked off 2007 with a bang, announcing both a radicalization of his program and a further concentration of his personal power. Given their publishing deadlines, this trio of biographies, then, could only summarily touch upon what might easily become landmark events in Venezuelan history. With a two-story-high inflatable float of his image rolled into a central plaza, Chavez asked the National Assembly to grant him power to legislate in 11 key areas by simple presidential decree as well as demanding that the two-term limit on the presidency be lifted. After the opposition stupidly boycotted the last election, leaving 100 percent of the Assembly seats in pro-Chavez hands, El Comandante will be granted his wishes, opening the way for him to fulfill his vow to stay in power until least 2021.
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