In 2007, Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez had an idea: the whole country should set their clocks back by a half hour. His idea was that this would allow schoolchildren to wake up in daylight, not darkness. Since he was comandante, and the only person in the nation’s power structure whose opinion mattered, this edict went into effect. In 2011, the Guardian’s Latin American bureau chief Rory Carroll was visiting the Ciudad Guayana industrial zone:
“A rectangular slab of black granite in the middle of wasteland caught our attention. It was a sundial dating from the 1970s, when this field of weeds had been a visitor park with flower beds. Now it was abandoned. The dial was thirty minutes fast. ‘Since the president changed the clocks, it’s been out of sync,’ explained [the tour guide]. He shrugged. ‘There’s no way to fix it.’”
That detail comes late in Comandante, Carroll’s vividly reported account of how Chávez’s whirling dervish brand of governing (if it can even be called that) devastated the nation. The image is hard to shake, the sundial mutely protesting with stolid reality while the hyperbolically active and impassioned but purblind leader sends Venezuela off on another harebrained scheme. It’s a silent rebuke to the savior school of political leadership, in which people desperate for change put all their hopes into one man or woman. Such leaders will always disappoint. Chávez more than most.
A former paratrooper with a gift for spectacle, Chávez ruled Venezuela from his first inauguration in 1999 until his death in 2013. Carroll wisely avoids trying to write the definitive, blow-by-blow history of his nearly decade-and-a-half in office; with a leader that divisive, it’s too early, yet. The subject needs some time and distance. Carroll aims for a more impressionistic portrait of the country while it was under Chávez’s sway.
In a sense, Carroll’s presentation of Chávez might argue that a more chronological approach would have been beside the point. Because not long after he took power, and the comandante was ensconced in the grand Miraflores Palace in Caracas, the stage was set for a show that would run continually and with few real changes until his death. The only thing that would change in those years would be the level of the country’s deterioration.
Chávez’s first attempt at gaining power was a failed coup in 1992, after which he was briefly imprisoned. Freed by a government that didn’t understand the power he could wield, Chávez painted himself as a rabble-rousing revolutionary in the mold of his beloved Simon Bolivar, the military genius who liberated much of Latin America from the Spanish Empire in the early 19th century. Like Bolivar, he had an easy target. The European-styled elites of Caracas whom Chávez railed against were truly a distasteful bunch. But just like the dictatorial Bolivar, whose pan-Latin republic swiftly folded, once Chávez achieved his victory, the populist became an oligarch, and the country he had conquered began to fall apart.
Blessed with a subject like Chávez, Carroll writes in Technicolor, his prose splashed with remarkable detail. He shows a ruler obsessed with image and symbol, but incapable at following through on an even the most mundane details of his job. Carroll captures the quiet and determined hum of activity in Miraflores and the hub of surrounding ministries known as “El Silencio”. which looks busy to the casual observer but actually obscured a government in which every decision funneled through one man and nothing was ever followed through on. (Chavez loved to create ministries; nobody could ever keep track of how many there were, much less what they were supposed to do.)
There are the epic, hours-long broadcasts of Hello, President!, Chavez ‘s daily TV show, where he held forth on any subject that could briefly capture his attention. It’s a definitive portrayal of the thin-skinned narcissistic entertainer who lives and dies by the approval of an audience. These scenes are some of the most comic and yet disturbing of the book. If only he could have been content to be a television host. Transfixed by the camera, Chávez fires off ideas and programs, his dutiful lackeys and ministers waiting nearby to look as though they are jumping into action. All the audience knows is that their president, a brilliant manipulator of pathos and rage mixed with an earthy humor, has addressed a problem and solved it.
Meanwhile in reality, through lack of attention, critical industries are falling apart, the economy is tanking, and the infrastructure is literally collapsing. The country should be wealthy, with its vast oil reserves and at a time of high prices. But all that wealth disappeared into the cracks of inefficiency, wasteful subsidies, and bad management. Caracas turns into a fearful and crime-ridden slum of rotting high-rises straight out of some futuristic science-fiction nightmare.
While everything fell apart, Chávez spent his time in ill-considered and Mao-esque great plans that only increased the suffering, and railed against his opponents (real and imagined) like his compatriot, Fidel Castro. (The two men, each heads of their own cult of personality, had a very simpatico relationship: Cuba sent doctors to Venezuela, while Chávez sent oil to Cuba.)
But while Carroll’s view of Chávez is far from charitable, he doesn’t try to shoehorn him into a preexisting narrative. While his enemies in conservative Western circles and the homegrown oligarchs who despised Chávez for his populism tried to show him as just another Stalinist dictator, the definition never quite worked. Chávez used almost every dirty trick at his disposal to squash dissent, from inventing shadowy American-backed conspiracies to undermine his power to running opposing viewpoints off the airwaves. But Chávez didn’t resort to the death squads and torture chambers that are part of the standard totalitarian package. His was a new, fuzzy, media-centric kind of dictatorship, one that maintained power through soft means.
It was “baffling” to behold the societal collapse caused by this image-blinded neglect of Chávez, Carroll writes. In 1998, just before Chávez took power, there were 4,500 murders in Venezuela; by 2008, there were over 17,000. Under Chávez’s rule, Venezuela became more dangerous than Iraq:
“The maximum leader who liked to micromanage everything lost control of society’s most fundamental requirement, security, wringing his hands while criminals shot, stabbed, and strangled with impunity. It was not supposed to be like this. Poverty was falling and new social missions were bringing services to neglected barrios to ameliorate, as the government put it, decades of ‘savage capitalism.’ Chávez’s opponents were also stumped. They called him a dictator, but real dictators—Trujillo Perez Jimenez, Fidel, Kim Jong Il—kept streets safe for ordinary people. The great journey shuddered to a halt because towns and cities were quarantined by fear.”
The self-styled new liberator and comandante of the revolution might not have been a dictator, just criminally incompetent. It will be up to the writers who will follow Carroll to decide which was worse.