Sunday, June 08, 2008
The recent election of “red bishop” Fernando Lugo as president of Paraguay is a spectacular example of Latin America's lurch to the left over the past decade. In a region once famed for right-wing dictators, countries are falling like dominoes under the “Chavez effect”. Since becoming president of Venezuela 10 years ago, Hugo Chavez has emerged as one of the most controversial figures on the world stage. Often depicted as a monster, a clown, or an aspiring communist dictator in the mould of Cuba's Fidel Castro, he is accused of everything from undermining democracy to destroying his country's economy.
For Bart Jones, an American journalist, things are more complex. Bringing a racial dimension to the debate, he argues that the media has failed to explain the popularity of Chavez because it views Venezuela almost exclusively “through the lens of the light-skinned elites”. His book is an attempt to redress the balance.
Chavez, 53, the country's first dark-skinned leader, has used Venezuela's immense oil wealth, says Jones, to improve life for millions of impoverished shantytown residents through health and education programmes such as no other leader ever attempted. For Washington, though, the “Bolivarian revolution” (named after Simon Bolivar, the leader of the independence struggle against Spain) is a threat to stability in a region long regarded as America's “back yard”. Not only has Chavez bonded with Castro, but he has built an alliance with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the nuclear-obsessed Iranian leader.
The level of discourse has sunk to the playground, with American officials likening Chavez to Hitler, and Chavez calling George Bush a “fool”, a “drunk” and a “donkey” and comparing him to the devil. Jones asks us to bear in mind American support for the coup attempt against Chavez in 2002, when opposition groups received American funding.
Madman or messiah, the former army major has certainly put Venezuela on the map. Until he erupted onto the stage in his trademark red beret, his country was known mainly for beauty queens and oil.Many of the country's oil tankers were named after the most cherished beauty queens but Chavez set a new tone when he rechristened two of the ships Negra Hipolita and Negra Matea after the wet nurse and governess of Bolivar, his hero since childhood.
Chavez's parents were schoolteachers but, at a time when Venezuela's oil wealth was creating fabulous fortunes for a privileged few, he was brought up mainly by his grandmother, who made boiled sweets for little Hugo to sell on the streets. His early diaries reveal a sense of outrage at the gap between rich and poor: “I feel the blood boil in my veins,” he wrote when he was 19, “and I convince myself of the need to do something, whatever it may be, for these people.”
Although he decided young that he would follow in the footsteps of the great 19th-century “Liberator”, the rise from mud hut to presidential palace might never have happened had it not been for his fondness for baseball: his school grades disqualified him from entering the military academy in Caracas, but the generals made an exception on the strength of his knack for smacking balls out of the stadium.
The army was fertile ground for Chavez's hybrid, Bolivarian ideology. Its soldiers felt disgust at being used to quell food riots in 1989, when an estimated 399 inhabitants of shantytowns were shot dead. The coup attempt led by Chavez in 1992 failed when Carlos Andres Perez, the president, managed to get on television in his pyjamas to show that he was still leading the nation.
Chavez was lucky to serve only two years in prison, and was mobbed by crowds on his release: he had become a popular hero and easily beat Irene Saez, a 6ft strawberry-blonde and former Miss Universe, at the polls in 1998, a presidential election that became known as “beauty and the beast”. Venezuela had never seen anything like it: Chavez dispensed with the presidential limousine, paid surprise visits to decrepit hospitals at 3am and fired doctors he found sleeping; he would stop his convoy to chat with stunned rubbish collectors; attacking profligacy, he put the government's fleet of 128 aircraft up for sale. The street slang he used on Hello President, his television programme, horrified the Caracas upper-crust but endeared him to the masses. For once, someone like them was running the country. The coup attempt against him in 2002, when he only narrowly avoided execution by mutinous troops, collapsed because of divisions within the military and, to the horror of the American-backed opposition, he was reinstated and went on to win re-election.
Twice divorced, he lives alone these days in the palace; he is “married to the revolution”, he says. Herma Marksman, his former lover and comrade-in-arms, thinks all the adulation has gone to his head, and that his “ego has ballooned out of control”. She recently told another Chavez biographer: “Hugo thinks he's Rock Hudson.”
Fortunately, an attempt to change the constitution to allow Chavez to be re-elected indefinitely after his term expires in 2013 was defeated in a referendum last year. Which leaves Venezuelans facing an intriguing question: can Chavismo outlive Chavez? Jones does not say, but his portrait is compelling for its ring of authenticity: he gained unusual access to his subject, spending hours interviewing him in planes, cars and the presidential palace in Caracas. The result is a refreshing departure from the ideologically charged tracts that tend to dominate the debate about Chavez.
¡Hugo! by Bart Jones Bodley Head £12.99 pp608
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