Coming to Grips with Chavez

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Pedro Rey / AFP / Getty

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

To understand Venezuela today, you have to understand Venezuela B.C. — Before Chavez. That is, of course, radical left-wing President Hugo Chavez, who is poised to descend on New York again this week. As a graduate student in the 1980s, I was a volunteer teacher at a school in a Caracas slum; when it rained I often had to help families lodge boulders under their ramshackle homes to prevent them from sliding down the steep hillsides. More than half of Venezuela's population lived in similar poverty, even though the country has the hemisphere's largest oil reserves. So shamelessly did its kleptocratic elite rob the oil wealth that a best-selling book of that era was the three-volume Dictionary of Corruption in Venezuela. It chronicled the nation's surreal and mostly unpunished scandals, the kind of chronic, brazen theft that has left Latin America with the world's widest chasm between rich and poor.

It is that rancid economic and political landscape that forms the backdrop to Chavez's rise. And it is masterfuly charted — from presidential mistresses running billion-dollar embezzlement schemes, to oligarchs holding epic weddings while the hoi polloi chafed under economic austerity measures — in Bart Jones' comprehensive new biography Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution (Steerforth Press, 570 pp, $30.00) The international community condemned the failed 1992 coup attempt to overthrow the old order, but Jones leaves little doubt as to why the rebellion's leader — Army Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez — became a hero to the poor. For them, Venezuela's democracy was "a sham dominated by the elites for their own benefit." But that democracy eventually brought Chavez to power, after he won the 1998 presidential election by a landslide. And if he wins a constitutional referendum later this fall that would nix term limits and allow him to keep on seeking reelection, he may hold that power for a long, long time.

That more authoritarian side of the President is the focus of Hugo Chavez (Random House, 327 pp, $27.95), the English translation of a recent biography by award-winning Venezuelan journalist couple Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka. A more critical account of his accumulation of power, it delves less into Venezuela's history and more into Chavez's psyche.

Both books contain important insights, and are welcome additions to our understanding of Venezuela — particularly this week, when Chavez, who is challenging Washington's hemispheric hegemony, is due to bring his anti-U.S. theatrics back to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. Last year, he used the occasion to brand President Bush a "devil," and to joke that the U.S. President had left behind a "smell of sulfur" after his address to the Assembly.

Chavez fans may prefer Hugo! while his detractors will find more to like in Hugo Chavez. But it would be a mistake to read them (as many already have suggested) as opposing polemics in the tiresomely polarized debate over Chavez. Hugo-biographers too often resort to either stultifying hagiography or gratuitous demonization. Both Hugo! and Hugo Chavez mark an even-handed departure from that routine, and they complement more than collide with each other.

Jones is a Newsday reporter who had been an Associated Press correspondent in Caracas in the 1990s, during Chavez's improbable rise from prison to presidency. He portrays the 53-year-old leader as an effusively generous character who, as an army officer, once lived with an Indian tribe to help improve its squalid conditions. Chavez, Jones writes, is a "teetotaling, history-loving, book-addicted, fire-spewing workaholic from the underclass... fighting to overturn decades of injustice." And he insists that Chavez's oil-rich but democratically elected government still lacks "the characteristics of a totalitarian state," although Chavez controls the National Assembly and Supreme Court. But Jones also points out the potential bane of Hugo's Bolivarian Revolution: the stifling "cult of personality surrounding Chavez," who he concedes can be an ideological bully at home and abroad.

Marcano and Barrera posit that Chavez's erratic style of "perpetual aggression" stems from the grudges he harbors over his own poor upbringing on Venezuela's llanos, or plains, where in the 1960s it wasn't uncommon for kids to pick up a little Castro-inspired Marxism. While schoolmates made fun of his rustic shoes and called him Tribilin, or Goofy, Hugo sold candies his grandmother confected under their thatched roof. Still, the authors concede that "nobody... can fail to recognize the charisma of Hugo Chavez," who almost became a pro baseball player. And they salute the "religious and emotional bond" he has with the poor, which often seems more genuine than the populism of past Latin caudillos.

Both volumes ought to make it onto the night table of the next U.S. President, who will need to find a smarter way to deal with Chavez, who controls our fourth-largest supply of foreign oil, than the ham-handed Cold War tack adopted by President Bush. Jones sometimes cuts Chavez too much slack, blaming Chavez critics for problems of Chavez's own making, such as calling Saddam Hussein a "brother." But he draws attention to U.S. errors with intriguing details about how the White House tacitly backed a failed 2002 coup attempt against Chavez. And he displays an expert appreciation of the local milieu that formed Hugo's personality, which is steeped in both the garrulous irreverence that flavors Venezuelan culture and a nationalistic adoration of South America's 19th-century independence hero, the Venezuelan-born Simon Bolivar.

One merit of Hugo!, in fact, is that it cuts through the hysteria of the Chavez "threat" to offer a more level-headed assessment. Beneath Chavez's demagogic rhetoric, Jones argues, he is no Castro clone (even if Chavez himself wants us to think that he is). He writes that Chavez "would follow his own leftist path. Venezuela was not Cuba, and he knew it." In an interview that ends the book, Chavez boasts, "I'm a subversive in Miraflores [the presidential palace]. I'm always thinking how to turn things upside down." But Jones' well researched look at Chavez's vast social programs — the "21st-century socialism" that has brought the first schools, clinics and potable water to millions — suggests a politician more motivated by common sense than by communism.

Marcano and Barrera offer a healthy if sometimes harsh skepticism about the motives behind such programs. They see Chavez's crusades for social justice and a global front against U.S. "imperialism" — which has led to close ties with regimes such as Iran — as too often subordinate to his lust for power and his messianic obsession with destiny. Chavez, they note, loves to draw "parallels between landmark moments in his life and certain historical events," usually involving Bolivar. But their book is best at detailing Chavez's contradictions, such as the addiction to lavish globe-trotting that he once decried in his venal predecessors. And even Jones shares in the couple's curiosity about Herma Marksman, a Venezuelan historian and Chavez mistress who by most accounts played a critical role in Hugo's early military conspiracies — but was dumped once he became the people's hero in the red beret.

The uneven translation of Hugo Chavez doesn't do justice to Marcano and Barrera's skillful narrative in the original Spanish. Still, both it and Hugo! are overdue aids to the U.S. discussion about Chavez — and to our better understanding of why, on the one hand, he's been so successful at "turning things upside down," but why, on the other, his flaws could someday just as spectacularly send his revolution tumbling down the Caracas hillsides.