Right from the opening pages of Eirik Vold’s “Hugo Chavez: The Bolivarian Revolution from Up Close” there was no doubt that the book was going to be very lively and readable, but I had a concern. Would the author make himself the hero of his own book? Was this going to be really heavy on what it felt like (to him) to be in Venezuela while Chavez was in office, but very light on analysis? Fortunately not. He provides a fair and very insightful assessment of the Chavez years.
Vold is from Norway. His book was translated from Norwegian by Paul Russell Garrett. Vold lived mainly in Venezuela during Chavez’s time in office which was from 1999 until his death in 2013. Vold arrived in Venezuela for the first time fours months after Chavez had been briefly overthrown in a U.S.-backed military coup in 2002. Out of journalistic curiosity, and practical necessity, Vold established enduring friendships with people who loathed Chavez and others who adored him.
Vold’s friend Omaira, a middle-aged working mom from the Caracas slum known as the 23 de Enero, illustrates better than graphs of economic data ever could the immense gamble the poor took on Chavez. The early years of the Chavez presidency made life harder, not easier for Omaira. Vold’s book allows readers to appreciate how excruciatingly long those years must have felt, but Omaira blamed the opposition and trusted Chavez to eventually deliver. She was right on both counts. The combination of the 2002 coup and management-led sabotage did immense damage to the economy. But after those efforts to force him from office were defeated, Chavez rewarded millions of people like Omaira who had stuck by him through those battles. By 2004, Omaira and her daughter were able to continue their long interrupted education thanks to government support (through a program named Mission Ribas).
“Omaira was almost offended,” Vold writes “when I admitted that I had not heard of all the social reforms and all the things that had happened in her barrio over the past few months. ‘Maybe you are watching too much opposition TV’ she commented.”
Wildly dishonest Venezuelan (and international) media, NGOs and pollsters are prominent in Vold’s book. Constantly lying in front of millions of Venezuelans like Omaira – whom the elite had long grown accustomed to ignoring – was not a wise opposition strategy considering the poverty rate was 50 percent when Chavez first took office and rose to 60 percent by the end of the infamous “oil strike” in 2003. One reason Chavez expanded state media was to inform the poor of what was now available to them: “How do poor, pregnant women make use of the new birth centers if they do not know where they are or that their services are free? And what if they believed in the media’s claims that the Cuban doctors were killers?” asked Vold.
He describes various changes in Omaira’s barrio that had taken place by 2006 that a journalist from a rich country, if willing to venture out of wealthy neighborhoods, would miss even if political bias were not a problem. Vold did the work and built the long-term relationships that enabled him to grasp why Chavez was beloved by millions who were effectively marginalized before he transformed Venezuelan politics.
Vold’s friend Antonio, a businessman from East Caracas, had a completely different perspective. Much of Antonio’s hatred was fueled by consuming opposition media and talking to friends and neighbors who did the same. Vold’s first friendships and experiences in Venezuela were in East Caracas. His opinion, in the midst of the chaos and violence during the “oil strike” taking place when he had very recently arrived, was that Chavez should resign to prevent some kind of civil war from breaking out.
Vold quickly broke out of the East Caracas bubble. However, Vold believes that one of Antonio’s accounts of corruption within Chavista ranks rang true, about being offered overpriced contracts in exchange for money under the table. Vold argues that Chavista opponents, particularly the private media, were caught lying and exaggerating so often that it actually helped corrupt officials evade accountability.
Vold is blunt in addressing what he sees as the failures of the Chavez years: violent crime increased mainly because the judiciary was never effectively reformed and poor planning and execution of infrastructure projects was a factor, but he ridicules the western establishment’s assessment of the Chavez years: “Presumably Venezuela is the only country in the world where turning a falling GDP into growth, and reducing inflation and unemployment by half, is considered an economic catastrophe by media and experts.”
He discussed an incident that shows how much more broad the Western imperial establishment is than is often understood. WikiLeaks exposed the activity of Statoil, “a legitimate child of Norway’s own oil nationalization,” in Venezuela where it conspired with U.S. diplomats and others to try to organize an illegal secret boycott of Venezuelan oil. Vold remarked that that “many millions spent on marketing the ‘kinder’ Statoil brand went up in smoke on the day the WikiLeaks documents were released.”
In discussing U.S. support for efforts to topple Chavez by any means, it is much to Vold’s credit that he explains the numerous similarities with U.S. attacks against Aristide’s government in Haiti during the early 2000s. Aristide was eventually kidnapped by U.S. troops in February 2004, but the groundwork was laid through economic sanctions and through the funding of the opposition through USAID and NED (the National Endowment for Democracy).
Of course, the economic depression Venezuela is going through today is eagerly blamed on Chavez by the same outfits that lied about and distorted his years in office relentlessly. Vold’s book would have been even better with a chapter devoted to assessing that claim: that the Chavez years made the present crisis inevitable and that the only answer is to discard Chavismo. The root causes of the present crisis, as most effectively explained by UNASUR’s special economic team, are technical though there is certainly a political component – including a component of domestic and international sabotage. Would Chavez have had the political capital to make the required adjustments? I wish Vold had addressed that question.
I can only hope that Vold is correct in concluding that as long as “the echo of ‘Hurricane Hugo’ continues to resound through the hillsides of Caracas and the villages and the barrios in the rest of Venezuela, never again will the majority quietly accept being forced into degradation.”