The Caudillo in His Labyrinth

Hugo Chavez and his enablers

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Hugo Chavez, by Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka, New York: Random House, 352 pages, $27.95

In an August address carried by fiat on all of the nation's television channels, Venezuela's authoritarian president, Hugo Chavez Frias, who had previously hijacked the airwaves to celebrate his own birthday, turned his country's attention to more urgent matters. The time had come, he announced, to move his "Bolivarian revolution" toward a more centrally controlled 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."

This construction project, he continued, would require 33 separate amendments to the Venezuelan constitution, a document Chavez previously rewrote upon his ascension to Miraflores Palace in 1999. The most dramatic and controversial change would eliminate presidential term limits, ensuring the fulfillment of Chavez's promise not to leave office until, at the earliest, 2021. To Chavez, a permanent revolution requires that he wield permanent power.

It's a risky move, considering recent opinion polls that show a majority of Venezuelans skeptical of further constitutional "reform," especially if it means the possibility of seeing Chavez become president for life. But the same public also opposed the government's refusal to renew a broadcast license for RCTV, the country's oldest and most anti-Chavez private television network. And that storm seems to have passed without Chavez backing down.

Despite periodic spasms of public discontent, like the student protests that followed RCTV's closure, Hugo Chavez remains popular in his own country and is arguably Latin America's most influential leader. But when you strip away his studied anti-Americanism and petrodollar populism, there is little that separates this president from Venezuela's earlier corrupt leaders. The man who promised to root out Caracas' venal oligarchy has instead installed a new set of political cronies. That shouldn't be surprising: The architect of "21st-century socialism" is, after all, taking his cues from 19th-century caudilloism.

To many gringo observers, Hugo Chavez is merely a mildly buffoonish, if brave, left-wing populist: a blustering, swaggering caudillo who used a United Nations lectern to suggest the U.S. president is the physical incarnation of the devil. But he is also a man who has declared his eternal friendship with Libya's Col. Moammar Qaddafi, Belorussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Zimbabwean tyrant Robert Mugabe, imprisoned terrorist Carlos the Jackal, the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and, of course, Cuban strongman Fidel Castro. Among the gringo masses, this side of Chavez is rather less well-known.

In their book Hugo Chavez, the 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 of why Chavez, rather than simply anointing a capable and ideologically sound successor, desperately clings to the presidency.

Chavez emerges here as an autodidact who immersed himself in radical politics, milling about in political salons and hanging out with kids named after October revolutionaries. Chavez later claimed it was not a lack of skill that drove him from his beloved béisbol to political activism but the works of Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar, which roused his dormant anti-yanqui feelings. "I let go of that fanaticism," he told one interviewer. "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."

But while Chavez has always been a man of the socialist left, Marcano and Barrera suggest he is more interested in power than in political orthodoxy. His one book on politics, they write, is an exercise in vapidity, overflowing with "patriotic kitsch" rather than Gramscian dialectics.

Far from a Marxist materialist, Chavez believes himself to be the reincarnation—literally—of Ezequiel Zamora, a peasant revolutionary who fought for land reform in the Venezuelan civil wars of the 1840s and 1850s.

During his years in the military, the authors report, Chavez devoured revolutionary literature and studied the works of Marx, Guevara, and Qaddafi. His constant plotting against the government was either ignored or treated with little seriousness by the country's security services. As far back as 1984, one co-conspirator tells Marcano and Barrera, "Chavez 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, the authors report, he "was disregarded. And then, on top of it, he was forced to undergo a psychiatric exam." The plotting continued, undisturbed.

In 1992 Chavez and his compañeros launched a disastrous and ill-conceived coup, leaving 20 people dead and the government securely in power. Although he did not achieve a single military objective that day, Marcano and Barrera argue that it was Hugo Chavez's impromptu television appearance from custody, during which he promised that one day he would topple the government, that laid the groundwork for his political career and created the "Chavez myth."

After Chavez served just two years in prison, the government of Rafael Caldera pardoned him, hoping that, stripped of his martyr status, the mythological revolutionary would quickly recede from public view. But Chavez began grooming himself for electoral politics, softening his radical image, and employing the evasive tactics of his Cuban mentor by claiming, depending upon the audience, to be both a democrat and a communist. (In 1960 Castro shocked his credulous foreign supporters, such as New York Times correspondent Herb Matthews, by declaring that he was, in fact, a Marxist-Leninist. He publicly embarrassed Matthews during a subsequent visit to New York when he told an audience of newsmen, Matthews included, that he had "tricked" journalists into misreporting his democratic bona fides.) But after his 1998 electoral victory, in which he faced off against a former Miss Universe contestant and a Yale-educated economist, Chavez governed with a Castroite bent, rewriting textbooks to reflect the new revolutionary order and creating local "Bolivarian Circles"—neighborhood councils modeled after Cuba's intrusive Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

The results were predictable. On the five-year anniversary of the "democratic revolution," The Economist observed that "Mr. Chavez'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 Chavez—Francisco Rodriguez, a former chief economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly, determined in December 2006 that while poverty was finally on the decline (thanks to a massive increase in oil revenue), "There is no evident sign in the data that supports the hypothesis that Chavez 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 message, Rodriguez elaborated, explaining that it would be strange, considering current oil prices, if the economy didn't grow: "It's normal for poverty to decline during economic expansions and the decline under Chavez is not unprecedented—indeed, it is smaller than the decline observed during similar periods in the past." And with an economy so dependent on oil, which accounts for 90 percent of the country's export earnings, how long can the free-spending revolution survive?

Marcano and Barrera's book was originally published in Spanish in 2004, and the English edition occasionally shows its age. The authors contend, for example, that while Chavez talks tough about American imperialism, he has spared the foreign oil companies, since they are integral to the success of the Venezuelan economy. "George W. Bush is one thing," they write, "but Chevron-Texaco is something else entirely, and in fact, Ali Moshiri, Chevron-Texaco's representative for Latin America, was received by Hugo Chavez with open arms." But last year, Chavez 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," Chavez declared. "He who doesn't want to stay on as a minority partner, hand over the [oil] field and…goodbye."

Still, this is a comprehensive portrait of Chavez, a necessary antidote to the political mythologists who have, since the April 2002 coup that briefly ousted his government, exerted a disproportionate influence on the Venezuela debate. Previously the only biographies available in English were hagiographic. We have seen starry-eyed pamphlets by Chesa Boudin, son of the imprisoned Weather Underground terrorist Kathy Boudin, and Aleida Guevara, the daughter of Che. We have seen books like In the Shadow of the Liberator, written by Richard Gott, a former KGB "agent of influence" whose tome, in the words of 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." What we haven't seen, until now, is a thoughtful examination of the Chavez phenomenon from journalists with a wide-ranging, hands-on knowledge of Venezuela's tragic political history.

Hugo Chavez is dispiriting reading, but there may still be hope for Venezuela. As Chavez 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 toward 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.