Hugo Chávez. Among U.S. government officials, the name itself
inspires undifferentiated disdain. Because of his political relations
with Fidel Castro and Iran, his characterization of President Bush as
the devil and his defense of Colombian guerrillas, U.S. officials see
the Venzuelan president as the hemisphere’s new bogeyman, an
uncomplicated throwback to the clarity of the Cold War.
But with Venezuela consistently the fourth largest supplier of oil
to the United States and with Chávez using the country’s petroleum
wealth to win friends and influence neighbors in Latin America and the
Caribbean, U.S. officials cannot dismiss him so easily.
Chávez’s story resembles an overwrought Venezuelan soap opera — an
up-by-the-bootstraps protagonist given to passion and rancor, shifting
alliances and betrayals, dreams, protests, gunshots and at least three
In fact, however, the story of Chávez’s rise to power is even more
riveting than fiction, and the man himself is more complicated than the
international caricature that has developed.
Chávez was in the news earlier this year for brokering the February
release of some political hostages being held by the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and, more recently, for breaking
diplomatic ties with Colombia over that country’s spat with Ecuador.
When Chávez leaped into the fray over a cross-border attack by
Colombian troops that killed a guerrilla leader at a makeshift camp
inside Ecuador March 1, some observers, including Peru’s President Alan
García, were quick to criticize him for meddling. He is often accused
of being authoritarian and undemocratic.
Journalist Bart Jones, however, says Chávez is simply doing what any
world leader with spare cash does — trying to win friends and bring
other countries around to his vision for the region.
Jones, a former lay Maryknoll missioner, has come to understand
Chávez’s hold on the country from the point of view of Venezuela’s
poor. Last year, he published an ambitious account of Chávez’s life, ¡Hugo!: The Hugo Chávez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution.
Jones interviewed Chávez extensively for his book, and said the
Venezuelan president sees himself as the heir to South American
liberator Simón Bolívar’s vision of a united continent.
“Chavez’s mission to spread the ‘Bolivarian’ revolution is a
fundamental part of his program and his mission in life,” Jones said.
“He’s trying to fulfill Simón Bolívar’s dream of uniting Latin America,
in part to fight the great monster to the north. He takes it very
seriously and spends a lot of time promoting it.”
In Jones’ nuanced portrait, the iconoclastic president comes across
as neither the savior sought by his followers nor the demon painted by
his opponents, but as a well-read, self-made man.
“I’m not a Chávez proponent, but I am a proponent of fair, balanced,
honest journalism,” Jones said. Chávez’s critics tend to forget, he
said, that before the former military officer won the presidency, the
country was ruled by a powerful elite that amassed great wealth at the
expense of the impoverished masses.
Born in 1954, Chávez was raised by his grandmother in a mud-brick
house with no running water or indoor plumbing in a dusty rural town on
the Venezuelan plains. With few other pastimes, he developed a passion
for aseball, a skill that won him admission to the country’s military
academy — changing his destiny and the country’s.
As a child, Chávez learned that Venezuela’s oil wealth benefited a
“fortunate few,” said Jones, who arrived in Venezuela shortly after
Chávez burst onto the scene with a failed coup attempt in 1992.
Although Chávez was in prison after the coup, some of his allies
tried again to overthrow President Carlos Andrés Pérez six weeks after
Jones moved into the impoverished neighborhood of El Trompillo in
Barquisimeto. Jones recalls standing in the street with his neighbors,
watching dogfights in the skies overhead. When soldiers stormed into a
neighborhood on the next hill, all the residents ducked for cover.
It was a wild welcome. “I was fairly disoriented,” Jones told NCR. “We don’t have a lot of coups in the United States.”
While he was in El Trompillo, Jones lived like his neighbors and was
initiated into the lives of poor Venezuelans. The bathroom was a hole
in a concrete slab in the back yard. He bought water from a tank truck
that came around twice a week to fill barrels.
After a three-year stint with Maryknoll, Jones took a job with The
Associated Press in Caracas. When he moved into his more upscale
surroundings, he never forgot the early lessons. Life in El Trompillo,
he said, “was great preparation for a journalist who was going to cover
In the press corps, though, he felt like “a voice in the
wilderness.” Because his colleagues steered clear of the hilly,
crime-plagued Caracas barrios where houses are jumbled on top of one
another, they did not understand the frustrations of the masses of poor
Venezuelans who swept Chávez into office, pinning their hopes on a
military officer who had grown up poor as they had.
Venezuela’s bombastic president has claimed victory at the polls at
least 10 times since he took office in 1998. With his propensity for
outrageous comments in rambling speeches and on his radio call-in
program, “Hello, President,” Chávez earned the disapproval of many
international observers who considered his style unbecoming of a
president. Ordinary Venezuelans loved it, however, and turned out at
the polls repeatedly, voting for him in presidential elections and
re-elections, a constitutional referendum and balloting that put
members of his party into local and regional government offices.
Chávez’s opponents then “launched a coup against a democratically
elected president. Seven months later, they shut down the oil industry
in an illegal strike in an attempt to strangle the economy and force
Chávez out of office by undemocratic means,” Jones said.
The chapters in ¡Hugo! about the 2002 coup against Chávez — during
which he was spirited away for 24 hours and was sure he would be killed
— read like a thriller, complete with notes smuggled out by a
sympathetic nurse and a guard, and a loyal soldier who stands up to
“The opposition also needs to grow up and learn to play by the
democratic rules of the game,” Jones said. “People are hoping that
finally that may be happening,” now that they have proven that it is
possible to defeat Chávez at the ballot box.
He was talking about Dec. 2, 2007, when Chávez’s triumphant streak
ended and voters turned down a set of proposed constitutional
amendments that would have expanded the groundwork for what Chávez has
called “21st-century socialism.” The failed referendum was Chávez’s
first electoral defeat in a decade.
Chávez had proposed changes to 32 articles of the constitution that
was drafted and approved in 1999, the year after he first took office.
Among the proposed changes were a six-hour workday, a benefits fund for
independent workers, various forms of property ownership, and the
designation of the armed forces as “patriotic and anti-imperialist.”
Proposals to put the currently autonomous Central Reserve Bank under
presidential control and remove the two-term limit for president were
among the most controversial. The reforms also would have given the
government greater control over the country’s petroleum and gas
deposits and over agriculture “if necessary” to ensure food security.
Chávez had expected to win handily, counting on the many voters in
low-income neighborhoods who continue to provide a solid base of
support. But they stayed away from the polls in droves.
Sr. Jenny Russian of the Missionaries of Christ Jesus and of the
nonprofit Fundalatin in Caracas estimates that “3 million people who
supported the president [in previous elections] abstained from voting.”
People in low-income neighborhoods did not want to “betray” him by
voting against him at the polls, but they did not support the changes,
so they stayed home, Russian said.
Analysts say Chávez has been fairly effective at getting emergency
social services to poor Venezuelans. He signed a decree, effective May
1, which raised the minimum wage in Venezuela by 30 percent to U.S.
$372 a month. But he has had less success in tackling more deep-rooted
structural problems such as crime and employment. Shortages of staple
food items and rising consumer costs have heightened tension in recent
Although the unexpected rebuff in December threw his political plans
into disarray, Chávez accepted the results. That Jones said, belies the
oft-heard accusation that the Venezuelan president is a dictator.
“He is a strong president, no doubt about it, but there are a lot of
things that don’t fit the definition of a dictatorship, including him
losing an election … and accepting the results,” said Jones, who now
works for Newsday in New York. “Real dictators don’t do that.”
Part of the animosity toward Chávez may have more to do with his dirt-poor, rural roots than his politics.
“Rich elites call him ‘the monkey,’ ” Jones said. “He is supposed to
be the servant in their mansions. He’s not supposed to be their
Only time will tell whether Chávez — like left-leaning presidents
elected after him in various parts of Latin America — will manage to
dismantle an entrenched oligarchy.
“You cannot have a tiny group of filthy rich people atop the oil
wealth heap, living in mansions, jetting off to Miami and Paris
whenever they felt like it, and have the majority living in mud huts
and tin shacks, barely able to eat,” Jones said. “That’s what brought
Chávez to power. People don’t want to live in tin shacks. They want
safe streets, decent schools and good hospitals.”
Barbara Fraser is a freelance writer living in Peru.