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¡Hugo! The Definitive Chavez Biography

I am not a reader of biographies and I am not a fan of learning history by studying the lives of "great men." Having said that, I believe that ¡Hugo! is one of the most important books of 2007.

¡Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution
by Bart Jones
Hardback, 570pp
Steerforth Press
Sept. 2007, $30

I am not a reader of biographies and I am not a fan of learning history by studying the lives of "great men." Having said that, I believe that ¡Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution by Bart Jones is one of the most important books of 2007 and a must read for anyone who wants a fair and balanced account of the great changes sweeping Venezuela and the historical roots that shaped the man, Hugo Chavez, and the Bolivarian process that is transforming the country.

Liberals and progressives in the United States have been influenced by the relentless Bush administration and corporate media campaign to depict Chavez as an autocrat who is a threat to democracy, press freedom, and human rights norms. Newsday reporter and author of ¡Hugo!, Bart Jones, has contributed a fast-paced, thoroughly researched and balanced book that allows the reader to make her own judgments.

Jones lived eight years in Venezuela, arriving in 1992, just as Chavez and mid-level military officers were launching a failed coup against Carlos Andres Perez, which landed Chavez in prison for two years. Jones lived in a poverty stricken Caracas barrio as a Maryknoll lay worker for the first year and a half and then landed a job as Associated Press correspondent through 2000. In the barrio he lived across the street from a mud hut, just like the one where Chavez was born in his grandmother's hut. As an AP reporter Jones lived in the exclusive Altamira neighborhood, a bastion of the rich opposition to Chavez. He therefore has witnessed firsthand the two extremes of Venezuelan society.

Jones was originally interested in writing a book about the 2002 failed coup against Chavez, but his publisher, Steerforth Press, convinced him to write the definitive biography to date of the man who is a hero to millions and a villain to a different set of millions, including his nemesis George W. Bush.

Jones describes the story he documented as "straight out of Hollywood." Indeed, I lost sleep two nights running because I just couldn't put the book down. I also was so engrossed in the two chapters about the 2002 coup that I got on the Washington, DC metro heading in the wrong direction and was in the suburbs before I became conscious of my surroundings. Despite the novel-like action pace of the book, it is meticulously researched with 55 pages of references and an extensive index. It is not a book of fiction; it is reality mirroring a bestselling action novel.

One of the best features of the book is the various side trips Jones takes in the early chapters into Venezuelan history and key events in the life of Simon Bolivar and other leaders who are largely unknown in the United States but who are heroes in Venezuela and much of Latin America. These mini history lessons greatly enhance the reader's understanding of the roots of the "Bolivarian revolution" and how history shaped Hugo Chavez, the majority poor who adore him, and the minority elites who view him as an uncouth "monkey" whose dark skin and boisterous manner are as much a cause of their revulsion as his policies.

As an organizer in the US Venezuela Solidarity Network, which is working to build opposition to US intervention in Venezuela and solidarity support for the poor majority, which, for the first time in Venezuelan history, feel like they have a stake and a role in determining their own fate, I was especially interested in the role of other Venezuelan leaders, both Chavistas and the opposition, and those who have moved back and forth between support and opposition.

I met many of them in October 2006 when I led a delegation to Venezuela to investigate how the US government was attempting to influence the December presidential election through spending at least $26 million of US taxpayer money in grants from the so-called National Endowment for Democracy and the US Agency for International Development. The grants are overseen by a US embassy-based office tellingly named the Office of Transition Initiatives. ¡Hugo! includes information about these "democracy" interventions as well.

If our only source of information is the Bush administration and corporate media, people could be forgiven for believing that Venezuela is a country inhabited by a single person – Hugo Chavez — and that he is the source of every problem. It has long been a successful strategy for the US government and media to personify targeted countries leaders as the sole problem standing between good relations between the two countries.

Jones points out that Chavez' overheated rhetoric often plays into the hands of those who would vilify him. Calling Bush the "devil" and talking about the lingering smell of sulfur during a UN speech enraged even some liberals in the US although the fact that he received the most sustained applause of any world leader by the assembled UN diplomats usually goes unremarked.

But these incidents and misinformation about the decision to not renew the expired broadcast license of RCTV, false speculation that proposed constitutional amendments would make Chavez "president for life," and other charges that he is "hollowing out democratic institutions," have taken a toll on support among US progressives and liberals. ¡Hugo! details opposition charges, letting the opposition spokespeople damn themselves with the absurdity of their claims against a backdrop of a system that Venezuelans, in a poll of Latin Americans about the level of democracy in their respective countries, believe is the most democratic in Latin America.

I am an opponent of US government and corporate domination of Latin America and the world. Bart Jones is an ethical reporter who may come off as pro-Chavez because he is imposing objectivity in an area where the reporting has been so biased as to distort reality to the breaking point. Jones believes that both the opposition and the supporters of the Bolivarian "process," as supporters have come to call it, have legitimate points that deserve to be discussed. One of his goals was to make that possible by writing a book which upholds the best standards of unbiased reporting. In the process he writes a "page-turner" book that will captivate and educate the reader. This book belongs on the New York Times bestseller list and in the hands of every intellectually curious US adult who questions the right of the United States to rule the world.

Chuck Kaufman is National Co-Coordinator of the Nicaragua Network where he has worked for 20 years. He is Interim Coordinator of the new Venezuela Solidarity Network. He can be reached at [email protected]