In his latest book, Irish journalist Rory Carroll delivers an authoritative account of the complicated legacy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who died this month. In Comandante, Carroll — who served as The Guardian correspondent in Caracas from 2006 until 2012 — describes in minute detail how Chávez, who ruled Venezuela from 1999 until his death on March 5, created something unique, “an authoritarian democracy . . . . a hybrid system of personality cult and one-man rule.” Here is Chávez not as a one-dimensional symbol but in all his complexity: The utopian socialist, the voracious reader, the vainglorious militarist, the bad husband, the doting father.
Even as he describes how Chávez empowered poor communities in Venezuela by creating communal councils and building homes for thousands of people who had never known decent shelter, Carroll succinctly outlines how the president squandered the great opportunity for durable development afforded to him by record-high oil prices, failing to diversify the country’s economy.
At the heart of this failure proves to be a desire — above all else — for power.
Chávez had a digital record of the names of three million people who had voted against him in a 2004 recall referendum, which was then used “to purge signatories from the state payroll, to deny jobs, contracts, loans, documents, to harass and punish, to make sectarianism official.” The mastermind behind the list, Luis Tascón, went on to become a strident critic of government corruption and was banished from Chávez’s inner circle before his own death in 2010.
Chávez’s opposition — a diffuse and disorganized group of former military allies, civil libertarians, the country’s besieged middle class and what Chávez would doubtless refer to as the country’s rancid oligarchy — never managed to unseat him. This is perhaps not surprising. They were faced with the cheerleading omnipotence of the ubiquitous state media — the result of Chávez’s war against Venezuela’s virulently hostile private media — and massive slush funds paid for with money siphoned from the state oil company.
Chávez did not ascend to and retain power alone, though, and contained in Carroll’s book are revealing snapshots of those who accompanied the president: The Machiavellian academic-turned-government-official Jorge Giordani; the gruff bus driver who would become foreign minister (and now president) Nicolás Maduro; the slippery former army officer Diosdado Cabello.
Outside the sphere of officialdom, those in the Chávez camp are a diverse bunch, with some appearing earnest and committed, such as members of an agricultural cooperative Carroll visits in Chávez’s native state of Barnias. Others, such as the Venezuelan-American attorney and government apparatchik Eva Golinger, coming across as slightly mad in their cultish devotion to El Comandante. Those who fall out of favor, such as former Minister of Defense Raúl Baduel, who helped crush a 2002 coup attempt against Chávez but then denounced the president’s 2007 bid for perpetual reelection, are dealt with harshly.
But despite Chávez’s political domination of the country, many of his grandiose ideas came to naught.
After the 2002 coup attempt, Chávez fell ever-more under the spell of Cuban leader Fidel Castro (“The Cubans took us over” states a former ally glumly), who supplied revolutionary manpower in exchange for cheap Venezuelan oil. Cuban doctors poured into Venezuela to provide their services in the slums of Caracas, but soon enough they returned to Cuba, moved on to work in Bolivia or defected to Colombia or the United States, leaving their clinics abandoned. Government officials, meanwhile, sought care from elite private hospitals. Roads, bridges and factories all crumbled due to mismanagement and lack of maintenance.
And as Chávez’s revolution went along, Venezuelans killed one another in ever greater numbers. In 1998, there were 4,500 murders. In 2008, there were more than 17,000, less than 1 percent of which were solved. The prison population tripled to 50,000 in a prison system built for 12,000.
“The revolution inherited grave social problems and made them worse,” Carroll writes. “The maximum leader who liked to micromanage everything lost control of society’s most fundamental requirement, security.”
To compare Chávez to allies such as Castro, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran or Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus is absurd, and Carroll does not fall into this trap. Rather, Carroll reveals a creaking authoritarian edifice that may or may not outlive its maker. A leader who once filled the television screens of his country non-stop has now fallen silent. And Venezuela is left to wonder what will come and fill the void.
Michael Deibert is the author of “Democratic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair.”