Two biographies of Hugo Chávez

Published online 31 December 2007.

This is a short review of two biographies of Hugo Chávez, current President of Venezuela.

(from Idealterna on Flickr)

Mostly I am interested in comparing and contrasting the two biographical styles.  Marcano and Tyszka are much like journalists, whereas Jones has a somewhat pro-Chávez axe to grind.  In the end I find Jones more straightforward.  I am also interested in depicting Chávez against the background of Venezuelan political economy, in which a rich few garner all of the profits from Venezuela’s enormous oil reserves while the poor majority have in the past found themselves shut out of the benefits in times when the price of crude oil has been high.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

Book reviews:

Marcano, Cristina, and Alberto Barrera Tyszka.  Hugo
Chávez.  New York: Random House, 2007.

Jones, Bart.  ¡Hugo!  The Hugo Chávez Story from Mud Hut to
Perpetual Revolution.  Hanover NH: Steerforth, 2007.

When reading the biography of a prominent individual, I always feel like I’m being asked to evaluate the historical time and space in which that individual lived.  This makes things difficult, as historical individuals are usually never pure villains or heroes, but mere human beings blessed with both strengths and weaknesses.  I think this is more important than the biases of the biographer, which can be ferreted out by looking at what the historical record has to say about the individual being “biographied.”

Today’s diary will be a review of two biographies Hugo Chávez, current President of Venezuela.  The first one is written by two Venezuelan journalists who may be beholden in some sense to Venezuela’s typically anti-Chávez mass media.  The second is written by a sympathetic leftist with some degree of sympathy for Venezuela’s poor.

Both biographers give us a fairly accurate picture of the same guy: an insomniac who lives off of very little sleep; very much a hands-on leader who likes to parade his face on Venezuelan TV; a playful guy in many respects; a guy who can’t stay married; makes enemies, and is rude and insulting to perceived enemies; a big reader of almost everything; very much a leftist and a populist with “marxist tendencies” and with enormous public support in Venezuela.  Both texts are rich compendia of facts about the life of Hugo Chávez Frias.

The particulars of Chávez’s life stay the same with both biographers, although each biographer’s coverage of each event is different.  Chávez was born on July 28, 1954 in a mud hut, grew up impoverished, went to military academy, read a lot, and went into the army, where he was a minor Venezuelan baseball star, and where he organized a subversive organization around the name of Simon Bolivar, which resulted in 1992 in a failed coup against the rather unpopular government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, who was impeached and convicted a year after the coup.  Jones’s biography goes into detail as to Pérez’s second term, in which neoliberal “austerity planning” was forced onto Venezuela, resulting in a political climate of almost constant chaos.

After the failed coup, which resulted in Chávez’s imprisonment for two years, Chávez became wildly popular.  The next important event in Chávez’s life, then, was his election to the Presidency “out of nowhere” in 1998.  Thereafter, Chávez’s term as President was marked by an April 2002 coup led by Alfredo Carmona, which looked for forty-eight hours like it had some chance of succeeding, and by a November 2002 capital strike, centering upon oil production, which crippled the economy.

Chávez then won a 2004 recall effort (yes, Venezuelans have the right to recall their Presidents – wish we had that here!), and a 2006 election, which he won by a landslide.

The journalists, Marcano and Tyszka, like to write in a style vaguely reminiscent of the “objectivity” typically practiced by American journalists.  They say, for instance, that “As time goes by, it will become more and more difficult to study the facts of Hugo Chávez’s life.  His story already has an ‘official version,’ a party line that has been reconstructed and retold from his position of power.” (13)  Jones, however, grants an audience to the story of Hugo Chavez, All-Venezuelan Boy, who grew up from humble origins in a mud hut in the state of Barinas to become an army officer, a baseball star, and, lastly and most importantly, President of Venezuela.

The Marcano and Tyszka story makes more of the various defections from Chávez’s inner circle, and of Chávez’s personal life, than does the Jones book.  One major distinction in terms of reportage of fact contrasts these two books: when the coup of 2002 was in full swing, the anti-Chávez media broadcasted a film of some people shooting guns which they claimed was of pro-Chávez snipers killing anti-Chávez demonstrators.  Marcano and Tyszka will neither confirm nor deny the media story about this film; Jones claims that it’s a fabrication.

Marcano and Tyszka insinuate that Chávez was lying to the Venezuelan public until 2005 when he finally “came out” as a socialist (23).  Since Chávez hasn’t instituted any sort of genuine socialism in Venezuela with what the authors’ introduction-writer calls his “almost dictatorial powers,” the point would seem to be rather irrelevant except for the fact that Chávez calls his movement “21st century socialism.”  Pushing away the hype and judging Chávez by his actions, however, Chávez seems to be a liberal populist, a reasonably good politician by Democratic Party standards, except that he has adopted a bullying manner of speaking about his enemies, a tremendous ego, and a country with a rather extreme class system and a corrupt political culture.  Chávez’s historical circumstances cannot be ignored in any assessment of his term as President.  Chávez inherited a country that was ruled through what Jones calls “piñata culture,” in which

…the “candy” or the money from oil revenues spills to the floor after the piñata is broken open and everyone grabs what they can in a free-for-all as they elbow others aside.  Those who didn’t take what they could were considered pendejos, fools.  (Jones 233)

Jones continues:

A best-selling book, The Dictionary of Corruption in Venezuela, cataloged some of the most infamous pillaging.  It was three volumes long.  It picked apart three hundred cases of graft among the high and mighty between 1959 and 1989.  The series didn’t didn’t even go into the second term of Carlos Andrés Pérez, considered a gold-medal contender in the category, or mention his mistress Cecilia Matos.  (233)

Whether Chávez has actually had any success in changing Venezuela’s political “piñata culture,” or whether he has just succeeded in bullying it into its subordinate place during the length of his term (and no further), is something that future historians will have to decide.  But Jones’ explanation makes his explanations of elite hatred for Chávez seem plausible:

The elites’ hatred of Chávez stemmed froma variety of factors, including frustration, paranoia, classism, and a fear of being left out of Chávez’s project.  All of it was reinforced by a twenty-four-hour-a-day bombardment of vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda on television that brainwashed a segment of the population and stoked something bordering on mass hysteria.

Chávez was not a diplomatic politician and had a way of bullying his opponents, whom he likened to enemies in a war.  He insulted them publicly and by name, belittling, humiliating, and depicting them as worthless scum.  For their part, the elites could not accept that an uncouth country bumpkin like Chávez whom they were more accustomed to seeing in a tuxedo serving them at their clubs was now in charge of them.  On a larger scale his political program and his plan to redistribute the country’s oil wealth was a clear threat to their interests.  (Jones 370)

The corrupt interests that previously ran Venezuela are, in short, getting a dose of much-needed blowback, and from someone they are being prompted to despise.  Whether it will all amount to anything after Chávez is gone is, however, uncertain.

I prefer the Jones book to the Marcano book because Jones’s narrative intent is straightforward, marshaling evidence toward a point, whereas Marcano and Tyszka seem to dance around like journalists, quoting this side and that.  Jones thinks that some of Chávez’s post-2003 social programs are doing good things for the people of Venezuela.  Jones also thinks that this is something that is vitally needed in a country traditionally dominated by a few rich people.  (Marcano and Tyszka, on the other hand, merely report that these programs are “mired in controversy,” while citing an authority who regards them as a ploy to keep Chávez in power (268-270), suggesting that “all the programs function by remitting salary grants to the participants, according to a system of partisan affiliations and loyalty to the government” (269).  How precisely that works, today, is not spelled out.  Even so, the authors detail these programs concisely — including free health care, educational assistance, assistance for the unemployed, and subsidized access to food.

Despite an overall favorable account of Chávez, Jones details the failures of his program in the last chapter.  Corruption and crime still exist in Venezuela.  “Murder rates that were high throughout the 1990s did not decrease under Chávez’s reign and by some accounts got worse,” (449) we are told.  The culture of patronage, and government corruption in general, did not disappear.

However, the poverty rate did decline under Chávez, if rather recently:

The poverty rate when Chávez entered office in 1999 was 42.8 percent, and it had indeed surged to 55.1 percent by the second half of 2003.  That wasn’t surprising.  The April 2002 coup and the December 2002 oil strike sent the economy into a tailspin.  But once the opposition’s efforts to create turmoil ran out of steam, the economy boomed.  It grew by 17.9 percent in 2004 and 9.3 percent in 2005 – the best rates in Latin America.  Poverty plummeted, falling to 37.9 percent by the second half of 2005, nearly 5 percentage points lower than when Chávez began.  And it only counted cash income.  If the food subsidies and free health care were included, the rate would be substantially lower.  The rate kept dropping as Chávez’s social programs expanded.  By 2006, not including the subsidies it was 33 percent.  (Jones 451-452)

So with Chávez the poverty rate has gone from 42.1 percent to 33 percent.  And the growth rate should have been enough to keep all sectors of the Venezuelan economy happy.  The center-Left in the US talk of “incrementalism”; Chávez achieves what they promise.

At the end of Marcano and Tyszka’s book, however, we are told that Chávez is all about power.

Of all the men we know Hugo Chávez to be, which is the most genuine?  It is very hard to tell.  What does seem evident, is that they all have something in common… No matter which Chávez he is, he will always, obsessively, seek power.  More power.  (Marcano and Tyszka 278)

It’s not difficult to tell from reading either book that Hugo Chávez is an egoist.  If you were in his position, you’d probably be an egoist, too.  And egoists love fame, money, power, and so on.  So, as a political egoist, Chávez wants more power.  To end a book on Chávez this way, however, is to belabor the obvious; what is interesting about power is not that the powerful want it, but what the powerful do with their power.

This is the weakness of a social movement, “21st century socialism,” that depends for its adhesive strength upon the popularity of a charismatic leader; it stands to be held captive to ego.  In fact, this is why I despair of reading so many “candidate diaries” here between now and next November.  At my current old age (I just turned 46) I tend to distrust the notion that having one individual or another in power is going to change the world in some dramatic way.  All the drama around Chávez is indeed something to expected given his character and the character of his opponents.  Yet when seen in perspective it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  Changing the world will require ideals beyond both Chávez’s “21st century socialism” and power beyond that which the Bush administration and the Venezuelan opposition has expended in an attempt to get rid of Chávez by whatever means necessary.

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