Book review: Comandante, by Rory Carroll

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ASKED by a scandalised TV reporter how he justified helping himself to a soft drink from a manufacturer’s warehouse, Hugo Chávez responded with a loud and protracted burp.

Comandante

Rory Carroll

Canongate, £20

A gifted – if unconventional – communicator, he always knew how to wind up the old elite. But how will Venezuela’s late president go down in history: as a belch in the face of freedom, or a breath of fresh air in a stalling global system?

Literacy, washing machines for all; an end to hunger; cheap petrol; social schemes; mass-transit systems; great cultural projects… what’s not to like? Well, says Rory Carroll, in this compelling life, the assiduously orchestrated personality cult of a charismatic, but increasingly eccentric, man. And the cataclysmic inefficiency of a socialist experiment that achieved great things but at the same time poured petrodollars down the toilet.

Chávez was no Stalin: far from being anti-democratic, he had something like a mania for being re-elected, organising one poll after another. Yet he’d interrupt TV schedules on a whim and talk for hours on end about his “Great National Moral and Illuminating Journey”. And he’d close down media he didn’t like. Meanwhile, says Carroll, the oil-underwritten giveaways by which he secured his popularity “left the nation flabby, enfeebled and import-dependent”.

There were no gulags – but the government’s critics could expect their intercepted calls to their mistresses to be broadcast on live TV. There was no serious state violence – but then there didn’t need to be. Even as poverty plummeted, so in vital ways did quality of life. Law enforcement was a shambles: by 2008, with 17,000 murders a year and 7,000 abductions, Venezuela was more dangerous than Iraq. Less dramatic but as debilitating was the delinquency reigning in the economic sphere. Profitable factories were closed; state-of-the-art assembly lines shrouded in dust.

Chávez promised much but delivered failure. Far from enveloping Latin America, his Bolivarian Revolution was left behind, descending through a comedy of errors into a tragedy of waste. «

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