Bart Jones, author of “Hugo: The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution,” was online at the Washington Post website Tuesday, Sept. 4, at 3 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about his new biography.
Bart Jones: Thanks for tuning in, everyone. Before we start, I wanted to say that Hugo Chavez’s life story is straight out of Hollywood, and I’ve sought to capture all that drama and action in my book Hugo! I don’t think anyone has fully told the Chavez story to date, and that’s why I’ve written this book. He was literally born in a mud hut and rose to his nation’s highest office. At 17 he gained entrance to his country’s West Point, then later spent 10 years organizing a clandestine conspiracy in the military aimed at overthrowing what he viewed as a corrupt and repressive regime. He launched a coup in 1992, went to jail for two years, and eventually ran for president against a 6-foot-1 blonde former Miss Universe – and won. And that’s just his life before the presidency. Chavez’s story is a clear example of truth being more fascinating than fiction, and people have told me my book reads like a good novel. I also worked hard to gain access to members of Chavez’s inner circle – including the president himself – and to leading critics in order to unearth exclusive stories and to set the record straight in instances where the public record until now has been inaccurate or incomplete. Love him or hate him, Chavez is a fascinating figure who has now emerged on the world stage and sits atop what may be the largest oil reserves in the world. It’s time to tell his story in full, with all the gripping details most people know little about.
Now, on to the questions!
Indialantic, FL: Most Americans seem to have the impression that Hugo Chavez is a dictator, despite the fact that he has been democratically elected many times over and is demonstrably very popular among Venezuelans. How do you think this misconception was created and why doesn’t the news media do a better job of correcting it?
Bart Jones: Well, my research into Chavez’s life and his presidency did find that one side of the story is often emphasized — namely the people who think he is a dictator who is turning Venezuela into another Cuba — while the other side — those who think he is the most democratic president in Venezuela’s history — is often underplayed. I think this is happening for a variety of reasons. Many reporters often either “parachute” into the country and stay at five-star hotels, or live in very exclusive neighborhoods. They tend to see the country through the eyes of the elites, and don’t always spend the same amount of time in Venezuela’s impoverished barrios where Chavez has his support base. There are also other factors why the voice of Chavez’s opponents get heard more loudly than his supporters. The opponents are wealthy, powerful people who are well-connected in the United States. The supporters are generally poor, powerless people with few connections. One of the most remarkable things about Chavez is the dichotomy between how he is viewed by the majority of the population in Venezuela who idolize him and actually live in the country, and how he is viewed internationally, where many people believe he is a brutal and evil dictator. The majority of those folks have never actually been to Venezuela, but rely on media reports.
I’m not sure why the media doesn’t correct this perception of Chavez and present a more balanced portrait — it’s become almost an accepted fact that he is an evil dictator. My book seeks to present a more balanced approach, and then let the reader decide if Chavez is good, evil or something in between.
New York, N.Y.: How aware are the Chilean people of the boliburguesia, and how upset are those who are aware of these priviledged individuals?
Bart Jones: I think you meant to say the Venezuelan people. I think many in the opposition are aware of the allegations that there is a “boliburguesia” or a group of Chavez loyalists who have made significant money from the Revolution. This is a topic that has received a lot of media coverage. I point out in the book that two of the major areas where many people — even some of his supporters — think Chavez has not done enough are crime and corruption. Few “big fishes” have gone to jail for corruption, in a country where it has long been almost endemic. Corruption is almost a way of life for some people in Venezuela, where the oil wealth has also had negative influences over decades. Chavez really has to fight a cultural battle to show people that being what they call “un vivo” in Venezuela — a person who knows how to get over on the system — isn’t really something that should be admired. But it’s a fair criticism that the government has not done enough to fight corruption, including within its own ranks.
Lyme, Conn.: Is there good data that can determine how much greater income has been provided to the poorer classes? How much have the economic policies in fact helped those we were the most disadvantaged?
Bart Jones: There are some studies indicating that poverty during Chavez’s presidency has dropped from 44 percent to 30 percent. These figures do not include the benefits poor people are deriving from various social “missions” Chavez has instituted targeting health and education, but rather count only cash income. The numbers originate from the government but are accepted by many international organizations. It also stands to reason that poverty has dropped, since the country has been flooded with dollars from the boom in oil prices. Chavez has redirected much of that money to the majority poor.
Toronto, Ontario: Hello Bart.
I read MANY English-language articles on Venezuela. I notice that there are generally 5 critics of the Venezuelan government, for every 2 supporters.
I don’t think this is due to pure bias, on the media’s part. Perhaps there aren’t that many english-speaking analysts who understand the governments positions.
Because the english-speaking media is so important… Do you think the Venezuelan government needs a rapid-response media team? (Similar to what the U.S. government currently has).
Bart Jones: I seem to be getting a number of questions about the media’s treatment of Chavez. I found that your statement about the anti-Chavez analysts getting quoted more often than the ones who are more sympathetic or neutral is generally true. Part of it may also be as you point out that there are not as many English-speaking analysts easily available. On the other hand, they do exist, and reporters can fairly easily seek out people like Steve Ellner or Daniel Hellinger if they want to. And presumably most foreign correspondents down there speak Spanish, so they should be able to find people who can present the other side of the coin. Or just talk to people in the streets.
It’s not my job to tell the Venezuelan government whether they need a rapid response team, but one of the striking things about Chavez’s government — especially early on — was that it contained several prominent journalists such as Jose Vicente Rangel in high-level posts, yet did not seem particularly adept at responding to attacks on the government. They certainly did not have any Karl Rove-types who could go on the offensive quickly and effectively.
Philadelphia, PA: I’m sorry, this is the first I have heard of your book. Does it include any insight into Chavez’s view of tourism as a positive long-term economic influence?
Thank you, Laurie
Bart Jones: The book just came out today, so don’t feel bad about not hearing about it previously. It should be in your local book store now, and I hope you go out and pick it up!.
I talk in the book a little about tourism in Venezuela, although more specifically about Chavez’s view on the environment. Venezuela is a wonderful place for eco-tourism, with Amazon rain forests, Caribbean beaches, and snow-capped Andean mountains. It has the world’s longest waterfall, Angel Falls. Yet Venezuela’s eco-tourism and tourism in general was not well developed. Chavez, frankly, did not have a great record on the environment when he first came into office, and alienated many environmentalists by going ahead with a previously planned, big electricity project that sliced through the Amazon rain forests. Recently though he has come around a bit on the issue, and some are even calling him a “green president.” He has handed out hundreds of thousands of energy-saving light bulbs for instance. Venezuela’s tourism industry still needs a lot of work, but Chavez may start to realize the tremendous potential it has for diversifying the economy.
Reston, VA: Good to see that you have written a book on the current Venezuelan president. What do you think about Hugo’s funding of the Telesur network to counter foreign world media in Latin America and what are your thoughts about the US Government getting upset by this venture (however leftist it might be) in freedom of media expression in South America? Thanks.
Bart Jones: Well, Chavez obviously wants to counter what he sees as the bias of some international television networks, and it would seem that if he has the money to do so, he has the right to pursue that. The United States does a similar thing through the Voice of America, in the sense that it presents a particular viewpoint, so I’m not sure they are on solid ground if they complain.
The issue of media freedom with Chavez is an entire topic in itself which I can answer in another question — the RCTV controversy, etc.
Washington, DC: Thanks for chatting with us. I’ve been to Venezuela on business on a number of occasions, and I’m continually struck by the vast gulf between what life is actually like in that country and the kinds of stories we get in the press here. What accounts for this? Did you ever feel pressured by your editors to make a story more negative toward Chavez? Do you think other journalists do?
It’s mind boggling to think that many Americans think that it is a totalitarian state, when Venezuelan media and culture seem to be way more challenging of its leadership than we see here in the States!
Bart Jones: This is along the lines of some of the previous questions. In response to the question about getting pressured by editors to write negative stories about Chavez, I can say that during the time I worked in Venezuela there was a generally negative environment among reporters when it came to Chavez. They groaned about listening to his long speeches, and often ridiculed his policies (I go into more detail about this in the book.) So there was a generally dismissive environment among reporters. I think many editors back in their offices in NY, Washington and London shared some of the same attitudes, in part perhaps because of the news stories they were receiving. Unless you go down there and roll up your sleeves and walk into the poor neighborhoods where Chavez is a hero to many, you won’t understand the Chavez phenomenon. You have to report the other side of the story, too, obviously, the side where the people despise him, but the reality is the majority in Venezuelans support Chavez, and that has to be reported and explained as well.
Herndon, VA: It seems a bit unsettling that Chavez is essentially outlawing dissent.
Bart Jones: Good question. I assume you are referring to the RCTV television case in which the government did not renew the station’s license. I think this is an issue that deserves clarifying.
Any time a media outlet gets closed it is reason to pay attention. However, the RCTV case is a little more complex than many people may think. This is a station that actively promoted and participated in a coup against Chavez in April 2002. I think the question is: What would happen if ABC, NBC, CBS or CNN took part in a coup against President Bush? The FCC would probably shut them down in five minutes and their owners would be thrown in jail. In Venezuela, RCTV kept operating for five years. When its license to use the public airwaves came up for renewal, the government declined to renew it, although it is still allowed to broadcast on cable and by satellite dish. So the RCTV case is a little more complex than first meets the eye.
Beyond that, it seems the Venezuelan media is largely free to say whatever it wants about Chavez. People go on television and call him a dictator. In a real dictatorship, I think they would be sent to jail or lined up and shot. In Venezuela, they get away with it. So it seems hard to argue that dissent is being silenced in Venezuela, although there are clearly tensions between Chavez and the private media.
Seattle, Wash: Could we not accurately describe Chavez as a democratically elected president on his way to becoming a virtual dictator, through is efforts to undermine the Venezuelan Constitution and Legislature?
Bart Jones: Well, this is an interesting question and a point that has certainly raised concerns among his supporters — especially his calls for eliminating limits on re-election to the presidency. For many people that is raising some red flags. At a minimum, it underscores one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Bolivarian Revolution – the over-dependence on Chavez as the central figure, the one-man show aspect. Some think that if he were to leave the scene tomorrow, the whole project might collapse.
On the other hand, the United States elected FDR four times to the presidency, and other countries such as France have no limits on the number of times they can elect their leaders.
Chavez is also not decreeing or ordering this. The Venezuelan people will have to approve it in a referendum, and then vote him back into office. Then they could boot him out at any time halfway into his term through a recall referendum.
So nonetheless this is a controversial move.
So Chavez’s proposal is not unprecedented, even though it is controversial and exposes some real problems with the process.
Freising, Germany: When I read that, “According to Chavez’s former psychologist, he has a need ‘to be listened to, paid attention to, admired, even idolized.'”, I wonder whether Chavez’s populist socialist politics are really aimed at solving poverty in the long term, or if he’s simply catering to the Venezuelan poor with activities and services that increase his popularity in the short term, and then later start to run his country like an aging Robert Mugabe.
Is there an indication that Chavez, like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, is investing Venezuela’s petro-millions in Venezuela’s future?
Also, what do you think of Chavez’s attempts to mediate between the Columbian government and the FARC rebel group (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/02/AR2007090201014.html)? I suppose that Chavez’s leftist credentials make him the perfect contact person for the leftist rebels, but will he be able to use this relationship to put pressure on the Columbian government?
Bart Jones: It’s a fair question, with opinions all over the map. His detractors think Chavez is implementing half-baked 60s Socialist policies that failed elsewhere. His supporters think he is doing what even the neo-liberal Washington Consensus people and the folks who oversaw the rise of the Asian Tigers advocate — investing in health and education to ultimately raise people’s standard of living and improve the economy. The jury is still out on whether his “21st Century Socialism” will work.
I think on the question of whether this is all just about Hugo Chavez basking in the adulation of his supporters and amassing power for himself, or whether he has a genuine interest in helping the impoverished classes of his country, is interesting. After interviewing the man a number of times over the past decade or so including extensive interviews conducted over a two-day period earlier this year, I think what ultimately makes him tick is this concern for the poor that was born of his own impoverished upbringing. He is on a mission to change his country and to change Latin America. It’s almost an obsession. You may disagree with his methods, but I think it’s hard to argue that he does not have a genuine concern for poor people and wants to improve their lot.
On his intervention in Colombia, it seems like a gambit in which he could come out a winner. If he wins freedom for the hostages, he’s a hero and a humanitarian. Even if he fails to do so, he may at least be seen as a humanitarian, albiet one without the clout to clinch a deal.
Caracas, Venezuela: Do you think there will ever be acceptance of Chavez by a large part of the upper classes? Do you think he will ever be able to give an open-air speech in the Las Mercedes part of Caracas?
Bart Jones: Good question. Frankly, I doubt it. There is such visceral hatred of Chavez among many in the upper-classes that I can’t see them ever coming to an acceptance of him. It isn’t that they simply disagree with his policies. They truly hate and despise him. He provokes such heated passions among his detractors. Venezuela is extremely polarized and I don’t know if the country will ever come together as one while he is president. It is sad in many ways. The irony is that Venezuelans generally are such fun-loving, warm and friendly people. But they are really at one another’s throats now over Chavez.
Los Angeles, Calif: My wife is Venezuelan, and I have been there several times in the last five years. Chavez has three TV stations that air his propaganda 24-7, and he closed a TV station for political reasons. How could you say that he is a victim of the media? In Caracas, you cannot walk a block without seeing his face on a billboard.
Bart Jones: It’s true there is Chavez propaganda on the walls, etc. But for most of his presidency the privately controlled media, which dominates the market, was rabidly opposed to him and even sought to help overthrow him. The media in Venezuela has done things that most experts in journalism agree were way over the line. The owner of Venevision, Gustavo Cisneros, even recently admitted this. The government-owned TV stations for most of Chavez’s presidency were small fry compared to Venevision, RCTV, Globovision and Televen. Today it has shifted to a degree with the closing of RCTV, but the opposition media in general in Venezuela is still alive and well, including most major newspapers and many radio stations. And again, RCTV was closed because it took part in a coup, not simply because it expressed opinions the Chavez government did not like. There is quite a difference there. RCTV never would have been allowed to continue operating in the United States or any other democracy in the world.
Kansas City, MO: But someone who likes to hear himself talk for hours on end (as on Chavez’s Sunday talk show) and seeks executive powers to rule by decree even when his supporters control the legislature and praises Castro to the heavens seems like a wannabe dictator. You have met him in person. What’s your sense? Is he at his core an autocrat or a democrat?
Bart Jones: Well, he is a military guy, so there is that certain chain-of-command mentality. But you can also argue that Chavez is doing things that are extremely democratic, like giving power and money to grassroots “community councils,” and instituting a recall mechanism which is the only one in the world apparently where people can recall a president from office in the middle of his term.
Chavez and Castro clearly are pals, and Chavez sees him as something of a father figure. But there are clear differences so far between their political projects. In Venezuela, there are real elections. The media is generally free to say whatever they want – and often do, calling Chavez a dictator and comparing him to Hitler. The opposition to Chavez often holds large protest marches in the streets. I don’t think any of these things happen in Cuba, so there are some real differences. Chavez also has not nationalized the entire economy the way Castro did in Cuba without compensation to companies whose properties were seized. Venezuela is still mainly a capitalistic society, although Chavez does want to introduce more elements of socialism. But it seems unlikely he will try to reproduce a Castro-style regime, in part because the Venezuelan people would never accept it. Of course, Chavez’s project is still a work in progress, so no one really knows where it will end up.
Evans, Ga.: It seems to me that part of the public perception of Chavez stems from his willingness to criticize the US at virtually every opportunity. How differently would he be viewed if he toned down his anti-US rhetoric?
Bart Jones: His rhetoric does not help him at times — that is clear. Even some of his supporters say that.
Seattle, Wash: Thank you for your considered response. To further the question from Caracas, do you think there is any chance of Chavez turning on his own rhetoric, and beginning to embrace the (abandoned by all) middle class, the upper class, and the US as allies? We did create a welfare system in working condition, as opposed to the Cuban system he seems to admire.
Bart Jones: I think Chavez could embrace the US an ally if the US also tones it down a bit. Chavez had decent relations with the Clinton admin. He told me in April that he hopes that whoever is elected the next president of the United States is a person with whom he can at least talk.
I’m not sure about a reconciliation with Ven’s upper classes, though some seem to be coming to some sort of peaceful co-existence with Chavez, such as billionaire Gustavo Cisneros.
Cola, SC.: is there any part of what hugo chavez said about george bush at the UN meeting that is NOT true?
if so could you please tell me what it is?
Bart Jones: well, that’s out of my area since I’m writing a bio of Chavez, but it will be interesting to see what Chavez says if he comes back to the UN later this month.
Bart Jones: Thanks for all the great questions. I hope you will pick up my book Hugo! There is a lot more in there, and I think I can safely say you will find it a good read whether you despise Chavez, love him or are still making up your mind. Thanks again!
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