“Comandante” sounds like the title of a wide-eyed hagiography. But the book by Rory Carroll, the Guardian’s Venezuela correspondent, is something far more welcome: a clear-eyed account of the whims, machinations and follies of Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan leader. It leaves the reader wondering just how the country can find a way forward. The book’s weakness is that the account is far from atmospheric and its structure might have been dreamed up by Chavez’s planning ministry.
Chavez’s trajectory is extraordinary. The comandante’s origins were humble but his ambitions always high. The young Hugo, second of six sons of serious-minded parents who were both primary school teachers, came from a poor village in the central plains but dreamt from the first of international stardom – as a baseball star. His childhood hero was a compatriot, Nestor “the whip” Chavez, no relation, a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. Sporting ambition, rather than any interest in being a soldier, took Hugo from the plains to the military college in Caracas. He hoped to develop his baseball career in the capital.
When he failed, other ambitions took over. Carroll charts Chavez’s rise in the military and his radicalisation. He was inspired by the left-wing military governments in Peru and Panama, and influenced by Venezuela’s stagnation as the oil price plunged below $20 in the 1980s. He became a national figure in February 1992 when he led a group of junior officers in an attempt to unseat unpopular President Carlos Andres Perez. Chavez was arrested but was able to broadcast to the nation that he had failed only “for now.”
The brief address became known for those two words. A restive nation had found its Robin Hood.
In jail, Chavez received further political instruction, especially from his ascetic future planning minister, Jorge Giordani, whom Carroll calls “the monk”. Giordani explained how to turn revolution into a structure that will endure. Two decades later, Giordani’s “maze of rules and restrictions” are still in place. Circumventing them, largely by bribes, has become the only way to do business.
Once in power, Chavez proved forceful and erratic. He swept aside enemies, though without murdering them, and hired, fired and rehired ministers and officials. He took to the airways relentlessly. Carroll captures very well Chavez’s ability to ramble for hours in a popular vernacular peppered with denunciations of capitalism, extracts from Pablo Neruda or Walt Whitman, and a line or two from Frank Sinatra.
Carroll’s assessment of Chavez looks entirely right. But his reliance on interviews and avoidance of a chronological account means the book wanders. The extraordinary drama of Chavez’s rise to national dominance and international prominence is lost. The book also fails to evoke Venezuela: there is no sense of the tense streets of Caracas or the heat of the central plains. Too little attention is paid to the country’s history, its complex racial and socio-economic mix, dependence on oil and large income divide: challenges that would tax even the wisest of leaders.
The book does not look ahead but the omens for post-Chavez Venezuela are not good. Chavez was lucky. A high global oil price permitted high government spending that kept him popular with many Venezuelans, especially the poor. But he leaves a politically divided country that is extraordinarily vulnerable to an oil-price fall.
Carroll portrays Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, a former bus driver, as a yes man with an “easy-going demeanour and an instinct for advancement”. It is hard to imagine how the loyal follower can take Venezuela forward. And Chavez’s charismatic chaos looks an impossible act to follow.