The Caudillo in His Labyrinth

Hugo Chavez and his enablers


In a recent address to his subjects, carried by fiat on all of the nation's television channels, Venezuela's authoritarian president Hugo Chávez Frias, who has previously taken over the airways for the celebration of his own birthday, now turned his country's attention to more urgent matters. The time had come, he explained, to move the "Bolivarian revolution" from its Lenin-like beginnings of transitional capitalism towards a more robust command economy. The nation had at last "broken the chains of the old, exploitative capitalist system," he said. "The state now has the obligation to build the model of a socialist economy."

The next stage of the socialist revolution will require making thirty-three separate amendments to the Venezuelan constitution—a document Chávez previously rewrote upon his ascension to Miraflores Palace in 1999. The most dramatic and controversial change will eliminate presidential term limits, ensuring the fulfillment of Chavez's promise not to leave office until 2021. To Hugo Chávez, a permanent revolution requires that he wield permanent power. It's a risky move, considering recent opinion polls showing a majority of Venezuelans skeptical to further constitutional "reform," especially if it means the possibility of adopting a President Chávez for life. But the same public, polling data demonstrates, also opposed the government's refusal to renew a broadcast license for RCTV, the country's oldest and most anti-Chávez private television network, and that storm seems to have passed.

To many gringo observers, Hugo Chávez is merely a mildly buffoonish, if delightfully brave, left-wing populist; a blustering, swaggering caudillo who used the UN lectern to unmask the current American president as the physical incarnation of the devil; a cherubic strongman sidling up with politicians like Rep. Joe Kennedy and London Mayor Ken Livingstone in order to unburden the empire of capitalism's victims.

But he is also the man who has declared his eternal friendship with Libya's Col. Gaddafi, Belorussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, Iranian leader Ahmadinejad, Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe, Sandinista commandante Daniel Ortega, imprisoned terrorist Carlos the Jackal, Saddam Hussein and, of course, Fidel Castro. Amongst the gringo masses, this side of Chávez is rather less well-known.

In the new book Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan journalists Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka provide the non-Spanish speaking reader with the first balanced account of the Venezuelan president's troubling rise to power. They also offer a clearer picture as to why Chávez, rather than simply anointing a capable and ideologically sound successor, desperately clings to the presidency.

From the awkward young boy who desired only stardom on the baseball diamond, through his imprisonment as a failed coup leader and his entry into democratic politics, Marcano and Tyszka paint a portrait of autodidact who immersed himself in radical politics, milling about in subversive salons, hanging out with kids named after October revolutionaries. But while Chávez was and is a man of the socialist left, the authors suggest that he was always more interested in power than political orthodoxy. His one book on politics, they write, is an exercise in vapidity, overflowing with "patriotic kitsch" rather than Gramscian dialectics.

Chávez later claimed that it wasn't a lack of skill that drove him from his beloved béisbol to political activism, but the works of Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar that roused his anti-yanqui feelings, and allowed him to understand the need for cultural protectionism: "I let go of that fanaticism. This baseball, it isn't ours. It's theirs. It belongs to the North Americans. Out there, I hear the sound of the joropo. That's our music. And that, too, has been trampled by foreign music."

During his years in the military, Chávez devoured revolutionary literature and studied, according to the authors, not just the works of Marx and Guevara, but Col. Gaddafi's Green Book. His constant plotting against the government was either ignored or treated with little seriousness by the administration and security services of former President Carlos Andrés Pérez. As far back as 1984, one co-conspirator tells Marcano and Tyszka, "Chávez was proposing that we undertake violent actions. Blowing up electricity posts, for example." Years later, when an unsympathetic army officer reported his insurrectionist plotting to his superiors, he "was disregarded. And then, on top of it, he was forced to undergo a psychiatric exam." The plotting continued, undisturbed.

In 1992, Chávez and his compañeros launched a disastrous and ill-conceived coup, leaving twenty people dead and the Perez government securely in power. Despite not having achieved a single military objective that day, Marcano and Tyszka's argue that it was Hugo Chávez impromptu television appearance from custody, during which he promised to again topple the government, which laid the groundwork for his political career and created the "Chávez myth."

Grooming himself for electoral politics, Chávez then softened his radical image, employing the evasive tactics of his Cuban mentor by claiming—depending upon the audience—to be both a democrat and a communist. (Castro shocked his credulous foreign supporters, like New York Times correspondent Herb Matthews, by declaring that he was, in fact, a Communist. He publicly embarrassed Mathews during a 1961 visit to New York when he told an audience of newspaper men, Matthews included, that he had "tricked" journalists into misreporting his democratic bona fides.) But after his 1998 election victory, in which he faced off against a former Miss Universe contestant, Chávez governed like a Castroite. And with oil at $7 a barrel—and oil accounting for 85 percent of the country's exports—the results were predictable.

On the five year anniversary of the "democratic revolution," The Economist observed that "Mr. Chávez's [first term] performance was disastrous. The proportion of households below the poverty line increased by more than 11 percentage points…It was the first time since data were collected that poverty rose even as the oil price did too."

Using government-supplied statistics—notoriously generous to Chávez—former chief economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly Francisco Rodriguez determined in December 2006 that while poverty was finally on the decline (due to a massive increase in oil revenue), "There is no evident sign in the data that supports the hypothesis that Chávez has been any better than his predecessors for the Venezuelan poor, and a good deal of it appears to say that he might have been worse." In an email, Rodriguez elaborated, explaining that it would be strange, considering current oil prices, if this did not happen: "It's normal for poverty to decline during economic expansions and that the decline under Chávez is not unprecedented— indeed, it is smaller than the decline observed during similar periods in the past." Without a parallel economy not beholden to fluctuations in world oil prices, can the free-spending revolution survive?

Originally published in Spanish in 2004, the English edition of Marcano and Tyszka's account occasionally shows its age. The authors contend that while Chávez talks tough on American imperialism, foreign oil companies, integral to the success of the Venezuelan economy, are exempt from the vagaries of Bolivarian socialism: "George W. Bush is one thing, but Chevron-Texaco is something else entirely, and in fact, Ali Moshiri, Chevron-Texaco's representative for Latin America, was received by Hugo Chávez with open arms."

But last year, Chávez nationalized the property of all the foreign oil companies operating in the Orinoco River basin, offering only minority stakes to those who remained. "He who wants to stay on as our partner, we'll leave open the possibility to him. He who doesn't want to stay on as a minority partner, hand over the (oil) field and, goodbye." And in their terrific chapter on Chávez's adversarial relationship with the media, Marcano and Tyszka's mention that the government was considering investing in a regional competitor to CNN. The station, Telesur, launched in November 2005.

Marcano and Tyszka's comprehensive portrait of Chávez is a necessary antidote to the political mythologists . Previously, the only biographies available in English were either hagiographic or conspiratorial: Books like Richard Gott's In the Shadow of the Liberator (Gott is a former KGB "agent of influence" whose book, according to The New Republic, is "platitudinous," "cartoonish," "outdated" and written by a man whose "romantic predisposition has clouded [his] ability to judge any regional political development since the good old days of revolution in the 1960s") and the starry-eyed pamphlets of Chesa Boudin, son of imprisoned Weather Underground terrorist Kathy Boudin, and Aleida Guevara, daughter of Che.

Marcano and Tyszka's Hugo Chávez makes for sobering reading, but there may still be hope for Venezuela. As Chávez tightens his grip on the country's democratic institutions, a recent Pew Global Attitudes poll revealed Venezuela to be the Latin American country whose people are most favorably disposed towards the free market, with 72 percent of respondents agreeing that "most people are better off in a free market economy."

Their country, alas, is going the other way.

Michael C. Moynihan is an associate editor of Reason.