Book review: Commandante: Inside the Revolutionary Court of Hugo Chavez by Rory Carroll

Hugo Chavez with a pair of pistols that belonged to his hero, the liberator Simon Bolivar. Picture: AFP/Getty
Hugo Chavez with a pair of pistols that belonged to his hero, the liberator Simon Bolivar. Picture: AFP/Getty
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THE death of Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, will lead to many objective, academic histories of Chavez’s contribution to his country.

COMMANDANTE: Inside the Revolutionary Court of Hugo Chavez

by Rory Carroll

Canongate Books, 363pp, £20

Eventually these may be based on access to his presidential papers. They will all have the benefit of coming to conclusions after a lapse of time.

This book, written while Chavez 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 Chavez, other senior members of his party and numerous ordinary citizens. He also listened to Chavez’s interminable diatribes monopolising most of the permitted television and radio channels.

Carroll brings a contemporary view of Chavez and his rule that will not be available later. The downside is that some of the evidence cannot yet be fully analysed – the full extent of Castro’s influence, for example. The names of interviewees are also often changed so their accounts are not attributable.

The book is written in the fluent style of a journalist rather than a historian and that is much of its attraction. It brings the public Chavez to our attention 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.” He was not alone in that: Bill Clinton does the same thing.

Carroll admits his book does not follow a chronological sequence. He pleads guilty to skipping ahead of history and at times that makes it difficult to follow.

Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born in 1954 and brought up by his grandmother, to whom he was devoted. He often referred to her in his monologues. He claimed a childhood poverty that is not borne out by the facts but it helped him to identify with the nation’s poor who were his main electoral supporters. He studied the masters of strategy and conquest from Hannibal onwards at military academy. In 1992 he attempted to overthrow the government in a military coup. He failed and was sentenced to seven years in jail but was released much earlier. The attempt brought his name to prominence and thereafter he decided to take power by legitimate means.

In 1998, Chavez took 56 per cent of the vote and thereafter won each presidential election and several referendums. Venezuela had been a uninteresting, oil-rich country with a privileged class that was very rich and an underclass which lived in extreme poverty despite the nation’s wealth. They all had a vote and Chavez motivated the masses to use their power by voting for him. On election night he declared “Venezuela is emerging from a terrible night”.

Once elected, the people’s president delivered on his promises. He introduced a new constitution guaranteeing human rights, state benefits and indigenous protection. He also extended his presidential term and his control of the armed forces. He used – and, latterly, plundered – the country’s oil wealth to deliver education, scholarships, free health care, loans and jobs. He criticised any body that seemed remotely elitist, such as the Catholic Church and the country’s judges.

Chavez used the media more extensively and with greater subtlety than probably any world leader so far. His weekly live show, usually repeated daily, was called Hello President. It lasted for five to eight hours without him appearing to draw breath. He humiliated colleagues, made celebrities of bystanders and announced sweeping acquisitions of jewellery shops, landed estates and national industries as he spoke. He featured individual successes in his broadcasts just as he received and responded to letters requesting personal help from citizens who had trouble with their pensions or their landlords.

It may be seen as no bad thing in a democracy to remove unearned privilege but the manner in which he did it made him enemies. Alienating the middle classes on whom the economy depended led to the growth of opposition parties despite his attempts to ban their access to the media and to make their protests difficult. At one point, faced with a march on the presidential palace and a general strike, he resigned and fled from Caracas. The army brought him back and he made further promises. Despite the discontent, he won a second term of office with an increased share of the vote yet by 2007 he lost a referendum on constitutional changes. His support was strong but discriminating.

By the time of his death, the presidential appearances on TV and his undoubted electoral backing were failing to hide growing problems. He had made many enemies abroad, the economy was faltering, crime was on the rise and corruption was rampant. Venezuelan society was close to anarchy. We can only guess what might have happened at the next election, but he would have been unlikely to go quietly.

Chavez did improve the lives of many of his countrymen. He was a larger-than-life figure who suffered from the politicians’ disease of hubris as well as his last physical illness. Rory 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.

He behaved as an uncrowned king, a demagogue, in some respects as a dictator, certainly as an autocrat. For many cultures democracy is not necessarily the most suitable form of government. Venezuela’s democracy under Chavez was a hybrid system. The results of elections showed it suited his people.

Chavez’s hero was Simon Bolivar, who said that “to understand revolutions and their participants we must observe them at close range and judge them at great distance”. Rory Carroll was in prime position to observe the Chavez regime and that is what he gives readers of this book. The distant judgments can come later.