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Book Review

Comandante - Inside Hugo Chávez's Venezuela by Rory Carroll

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Publisher: Canongate, hardback

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Rory Carroll was The Guardian’s South America correspondent for five years, basing himself in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, from September 2006. Indeed, during that time, he married a young Venezuelan woman, Ligimat Perez, who is duly acknowledged in the long list of people who helped the Dubliner write this fascinating 300-page work on the charismatic but divisive Venezuelan leader.

Hugo Chávez died on March 6 last, aged 58, of cancer. At time of writing, his appointed successor, Nicolás Maduro looks likely to win in April elections, allowing him carry on, as best he can interpret them, the Chávez principles of governance. These principles, incidentally, were not avowedly socialist from the start, but only became so in 2005, three years after the Bush-backed coup against the Comandante in 2002.

South America’s best-known novelist and political commentator internationally is Gabriel García Márquez and he makes an appearance early in Carroll's story. Aside from his astute commentaries on South American affairs, Márquez also wrote the novels El Otoño del Patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch) and El General En Su Laberinto (The General in His Labyrinth.)

The latter novel was loosely based on the last days of the Venezuelan Simón Bolívar, who played a heroic role in Latin America’s century struggle for independence. His military and political struggles inspired Chávez’s so-called Bolivarian revolution.

But back to Márquez. The year is 1999, and the author and journalist is accompanying Chávez on a flight from Cuba to Venezuela. Chávez, the son of primary schoolteachers of modest means - not as poor as he insisted - will soon be sworn in as president. The pair had met three days earlier in Havana. “The first thing that impressed me was his body of reinforced concrete,“ Marquez would later write. “ He had an immediate friendliness and a homegrown charm that were unmistakably Venezulean.”

Now Márquez’s El Otoño del Patriarca certainly is a phatasmagoric tale -magic realism run riot, as it were- and there is too a certain amount of what might be called magic realism in the Chávez story. Take for instance the fact that in September 2007, he announced that clocks would be put back half an hour. This so that schoolchildren could wake up in sunlight.

The author takes up the story: “Chávez wanted it implemented within a week – causing needless chaos - and bungled the explanation, saying clocks should go forward rather than back. If ministers realised the mistake, they said nothing, only smiled and clapped.” Walking around a disused city park some time later, Carroll notes how a sundial, erected before the decision, is wrong by a half an hour. He tells his guide this fact but is told that nothing can be done about that now. If that is not magic realism, then I will eat my copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Chávez came to power in 1989, intending to rule as long as he could, asserting that he needed many years to complete his ambitious national project. The book that tells the story of Chávez from birth to death is presumably already written. Carroll eschews the chronological approach, beginning instead in 2010, the eleventh year of the revolution that brought the charismatic leader to the palace of Miraflores.

He observes a seigneurial Chávez - the Comandante at his regal ease - on a presidential Sunday outing, blithely ordering that a number of shops in Caracas be expropriated. This order is drawn up on the spot, for the benefit of the ubiquitous television cameras, in the interests of restoring a more hallowed, historic aspect to the capital.

Throughout the book, the journalist delves into Chávismo, taking soundings of the country, not just in Caracas. He also investigates an extraordinary tale of industrial mismanagement and industrial meltdown in the city of Ciudad Guyana. He visits a struggling rural co-operative, he hears from taxi drivers, disenchanted workers, banking experts. He meets the elderly Caracas intellectual - a bibliophile and bookshop owner -who professes unswerving loyalty to Chávez, and whose job is to write speeches for him.

Ultimately, the country’s oil wealth led to a slothful situation in which it was cheaper to import products rather than grow or manufacture them. The country’s self-serving parasites hived off the oil profits for themselves and greed, as always got in the way, despite Chávez’s best intentions. He would preside over an increasingly chaotic, sclerotic economy, and ultimately resort to borrowing billions from China. The relationship with Fidel Castro is one of the few good international news story in the book, and Venezuela's poor certainly benfited from a generous influx of Cuban doctors. But even that ended badly, according to the author.

He recalks too the day managed to ask the leader a question on one of his marathon TV shows. He asked why should the president have the exclusive right to indefinite re-election, upon which Chávez heaped humiliation upon the journalist, accusing him of being European and cynical. “Eventually, ire spent, he moved on to other topics, leaving me to stew in my puddle of old-world vice and cynicism,” the author recalls.

Last October, six months before his death, in a free but not entirely fair vote, Chávez won 55% of the vote in elections, while 44% voted against him. Ultimately, he was not a total socialist, nor dictator, Carroll argues, rather he was a hybrid, elected but autocratic. There are no gulags or death squads in Venezuela. A bully he may have been, but he was not bloodthirsty. As Carroll sees it, the question now for Venezuela is how will President Maduro deal with ongoing internal divisions, and increasing economic problems. He is clearly not as forceful a personality as the man who received seven days of mourning.

Paddy Kehoe

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