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Carroll book looks at Hugo Chávez: The lord of misrule

Rory Carroll’s clinical assessment of Hugo Chávez’s legacy is both an indictment of the comandante and a love letter to Venezuela

In January 1999, shortly after Hugo Chávez  was elected Venezuela’s president, he met Gabriel García Márquez. The encounter with Chávez left the Colombian writer intrigued. In an article published shortly after their meeting, García Márquez wrote that, in Chávez, he met two men. One was a man who might just save his country; the other “an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot”.

García Márquez’s prescient assessment of Chávez informs much of Rory Carroll’s book, Comandante: Inside Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. Carroll spent six years in Caracas as The Guardian’s chief Latin America correspondent. He arrived in Venezuela in 2006, shortly after Chávez declared the country would work towards “Socialism of the 21st Century”, and left late in 2012, a few months shy of Chávez’s death on 5 March this year.

Carroll’s timing could not have been better. He arrived as Chávez’s star started to wane. His analytical and concise reporting charted the so-called Bolivarian revolution’s precipitous slide into the quixotic, incompetent and paradoxical. In Comandante, Carroll expands on themes he often touched upon in his journalism, offering a longer, more considered and – for English speakers at least -- much-needed assessment of Chávez and chavismo.

Carroll has delivered a weighty book - not so much in length, but in content. There is no doubt that, like Garcia Márquez before him, Carroll was troubled by the Janus-like contradictions inherent to Chávez. There are hints, too, that he wanted to see the revolution – though not necessarily that of Chávez – succeed. His description of a visit to a small agricultural collective deep in the countryside is freighted with the hopes of the group’s 15 subsistence farmers. These men, all former day labourers had, for the first time, control over their work and the path their lives would take. This is enough for them to resonate with dignity and purpose, telling Carroll they are a small part of a bigger movement that would fix Venezuela. Like Carroll, the reader leaves them, scratching a living on the savannah, hoping they succeed.

Carroll does not neglect Chávez’s mercurial personality, his quixotic politics, his unpredictability, his whims and passions, his buffoonery. All this is there. Carroll even recounts, in detail, his own humiliation at Chávez’s hands during a live broadcast of Álo Presidente, the leader’s weekly television show. But, unlike other profiles of the man, Chávez’s eccentricities are not central to the book. This is one of the many strengths of Comandante. Carroll chips away the bluster and bluff of Chávez’s machismo to expose the reality of lives lived under the comandante presidente. From unnamed sources within the government to former Chávez allies languishing in prison, community leaders in Caracas’s barrios, businessmen, writers, civil servants, technicians and members of the country’s disgruntled elite, Carroll gives a voice to Venezuela’s people on both sides of a divide chavismo created. The stories he tells give Comandante genuine substance and heft – and for non-Venezuelans crucial insight. Through the stories of Venezuelans, Carroll lays bare – clinically, unflinchingly – the scale and scope of the changes Chávez wrought on his country.   

His assessment is fair as well. Carroll points out, rightly, that while Chávez could be described as yet one more in a long line of caudillos, he was more than that, remaining a “stubborn, unique, indefatigable hybrid: an autocrat and a democrat”. He notes: “That Chávez dominated and abused state institutions and resources did not change the fact that people could still vote against him.”

If there is a lesson at the heart of Comandante, it is one of waste. Wasted opportunity, wasted resources, wasted ambition, ability, potential. Chávez came to power on a pledge to recast Venezuela, to demolish the corruption of the past and create the democracy his hero Simón Bólivar envisioned. Chávez had the opportunity, resources and ambition to do just that. As Carroll shows, Chávez wasted his chances, choosing to pursue power for its own sake rather than wield it wisely and well. In doing so, he created a new, pernicious institutionalised corruption to replace the old; gutted the country’s industrial sector; let its infrastructure crumble; and allowed his people to struggle under the weight of soaring inflation and shortages of basic goods. “Every blunder,” he writes, “every wasted dollar, extracted a human price. That the blunders were... quietly absorbed into millions of lives did not make the waste less tragic.”

Chávez did change Venezuela, though. His most remarkable achievement was to improve the lot of many of the poor, from whom he drew passionate support. According to official data from both Venezuela and the IMF, unemployment dropped from 14.5% when Chávez came to power in 1999 to 7.6% in 2009; GDP per capita rose from $4,105 in 1999 to $10,801 in 2011. In 1999, 23.4% of the population were in extreme poverty. In 2011, government figures put this at 8.5%. This success allowed Chávez to portray himself as a president who cared deeply for his people, who wanted to improve their lives, who was leading a revolution to bring about vital change.

But Chávez’s revolution was flawed. For the most part, the flaws erred towards absurdity and administrative incompetence. Except for one. In the 14 years Chávez was in power, the country saw an explosion in violence: murders became commonplace, as did kidnapping, gang violence, muggings and other violent crime. Chávez did nothing to stop it. Carroll says: “They called him a dictator, but real dictators – Trujillo, Perez Jimenez, Kim Jong Il – kept the streets safe for ordinary people. The great journey juddered to a halt because towns and cities were quarantined by fear... By 2010, everyone knew someone who had been wounded, killed or kidnapped.”

Statistics bear this out. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (the Venezuelan national police agency stopped publicly releasing murder statistics, but does not dispute figures given by the UN or the Venezuelan Violence Observatory), there were 19,336 murders in 2012 - roughly 73 per 1,000 people. In 1998, there were 4,450. In January and February 2013, 2,576 murders were recorded. These figures could even understate the scale of violence. Carroll notes that prison officials were encouraged to re-categorise deaths by strangulation as suicide rather than murder. UN data for 2008 is even starker. The homicide rate in Iraq that year was two deaths per 1,000 people; in Venezuela, 52/’000. In a country of 29m, the national policy agency estimates there are between 9m and 15m legal and illegal firearms.

Throughout this occasionally personal work, Carroll methodically weighs the comandante’s achievements against his failings, and in balance finds Chávez wanting. “The banal truth,” Carroll writes, “is that he cared, but not enough.” It is a damning indictment.  

Rory Carroll, Comandante: Inside Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Canongate £20

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