Comandante: Inside the Revolutionary Court of Hugo Chávez, by Rory Carroll
Carroll’s thoughtful book is a perfectly timed assessment of a deeply divisive figure
Comandante: Inside the Revolutionary Court of Hugo Chávez
His death, earlier this month, made headlines around the globe and intensified debate about the merit of his self-styled Bolivarian Revolution.
To supporters, Venezuela ’s president was a revolutionary leader unafraid to stand up to the yanqui imperialists in his attempt to supplant the cruel capitalism of our globalised era with his enlightened 21st-century socialism. To enemies he represented a throwback to the military caudillos of his region’s dark past, a dictator drunk on his country’s oil wealth.
Even in death this argument looks set to remain fierce, both within and beyond Venezuela. It is an ideological battle in which too often the loudest voices belong to the shrillest partisans of both left and right.
This is all the more reason to be grateful for the arrival of Comandante , a deeply thoughtful book-length report on Venezuela under Chávez by Rory Carroll, the Guardian newspaper’s Caracas bureau chief from 2006 to 2012. Long-form reporting is enjoying something of a golden age in Latin America, and with this gripping narrative, Carroll, a Dubliner, has produced an English-language account to accompany the best of those by the region’s writers.
A deconstruction of the Chávez phenomenon, it relentlessly adds detail to telling detail that Carroll collected on his travels across Venezuela and in interviews with people who have spent time in the revolution’s inner circle to build up what is by the end a devastating indictment of the record of the president and his Bolivarian acolytes.
True believers will be infuriated if they get that far. But for those fascinated by Chávez yet able to follow him only from a distance, this book, by turns personal, wry and wise, is required reading.
The portrait that emerges is of a leader who in truth was no leftist, just another Latin caudillo, the ideological trappings of 21st-century socialism flimsy window dressing for his populism and subordinate to his own will to power. Carroll’s Chávez is widely read but no profound thinker. This perhaps explains the ease with which Fidel Castro, an altogether weightier strategist, was able to dominate his younger colleague to the immense financial gain of his impoverished island.
Chávez pronounced himself a socialist only once he turned over large parts of his government to Cuban advisers, after the failed 2002 coup against him.
Both his public megalomania and his private cynicism, which join in his voracious appetite for power, are exposed for all to see. But this is no hatchet job. Carroll reveals that he too wanted the revolution to succeed, not necessarily the revolution of El Comandante but the one being attempted by 15 dirt-poor farm labourers he visits as they try to turn a piece of swamp into a new agricultural co-operative.
At night, as they sit around a campfire singing love songs, their leader confidently tells Carroll that they are part of something bigger, a movement to fix up the country. “If wanting them to succeed was taking sides, so be it,” he writes.
But almost everywhere he finds evidence of a failing revolution. His travels across Venezuela reveal that incompetence piled on top of mismanagement wrecked domestic agriculture and ruined national industry. The result is a country more dependent on imports paid for with oil exports, intensifying the dynamic that Chávez had promised to lessen when he came to power.