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¡Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution

Can Chavismo outlive Chavez? Jones does not say, but his portrait is compelling for its ring of authenticity. The result is a refreshing departure from the ideologically charged tracts that tend to dominate the debate about Chavez. A book review.

The recent election of “red bishop” Fernando Lugo as president of Paraguay is
a spectacular example of Latin America's lurch to the left over the past
decade. In a region once famed for right-wing dictators, countries are
falling like dominoes under the “Chavez effect”. Since becoming president of
Venezuela 10 years ago, Hugo Chavez has emerged as one of the most
controversial figures on the world stage. Often depicted as a monster, a
clown, or an aspiring communist dictator in the mould of Cuba's Fidel
Castro, he is accused of everything from undermining democracy to destroying
his country's economy.

For Bart Jones, an American journalist, things are more complex. Bringing a
racial dimension to the debate, he argues that the media has failed to
explain the popularity of Chavez because it views Venezuela almost
exclusively “through the lens of the light-skinned elites”. His book is an
attempt to redress the balance.

Chavez, 53, the country's first dark-skinned leader, has used Venezuela's
immense oil wealth, says Jones, to improve life for millions of impoverished
shantytown residents through health and education programmes such as no
other leader ever attempted. For Washington, though, the “Bolivarian
revolution” (named after Simon Bolivar, the leader of the independence
struggle against Spain) is a threat to stability in a region long regarded
as America's “back yard”. Not only has Chavez bonded with Castro, but he has
built an alliance with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the nuclear-obsessed Iranian

The level of discourse has sunk to the playground, with American officials
likening Chavez to Hitler, and Chavez calling George Bush a “fool”, a
“drunk” and a “donkey” and comparing him to the devil. Jones asks us to bear
in mind American support for the coup attempt against Chavez in 2002, when
opposition groups received American funding.

Madman or messiah, the former army major has certainly put Venezuela on the
map. Until he erupted onto the stage in his trademark red beret, his country
was known mainly for beauty queens and oil.Many of the country's oil tankers
were named after the most cherished beauty queens but Chavez set a new tone
when he rechristened two of the ships Negra Hipolita and Negra Matea after
the wet nurse and governess of Bolivar, his hero since childhood.

Chavez's parents were schoolteachers but, at a time when Venezuela's oil
wealth was creating fabulous fortunes for a privileged few, he was brought
up mainly by his grandmother, who made boiled sweets for little Hugo to sell
on the streets. His early diaries reveal a sense of outrage at the gap
between rich and poor: “I feel the blood boil in my veins,” he wrote when he
was 19, “and I convince myself of the need to do something, whatever it may
be, for these people.”

Although he decided young that he would follow in the footsteps of the great
19th-century “Liberator”, the rise from mud hut to presidential palace might
never have happened had it not been for his fondness for baseball: his
school grades disqualified him from entering the military academy in
Caracas, but the generals made an exception on the strength of his knack for
smacking balls out of the stadium.

The army was fertile ground for Chavez's hybrid, Bolivarian ideology. Its
soldiers felt disgust at being used to quell food riots in 1989, when an
estimated 399 inhabitants of shantytowns were shot dead. The coup attempt
led by Chavez in 1992 failed when Carlos Andres Perez, the president,
managed to get on television in his pyjamas to show that he was still
leading the nation.

Chavez was lucky to serve only two years in prison, and was mobbed by crowds
on his release: he had become a popular hero and easily beat Irene Saez, a
6ft strawberry-blonde and former Miss Universe, at the polls in 1998, a
presidential election that became known as “beauty and the beast”. Venezuela
had never seen anything like it: Chavez dispensed with the presidential
limousine, paid surprise visits to decrepit hospitals at 3am and fired
doctors he found sleeping; he would stop his convoy to chat with stunned
rubbish collectors; attacking profligacy, he put the government's fleet of
128 aircraft up for sale. The street slang he used on Hello President, his
television programme, horrified the Caracas upper-crust but endeared him to
the masses. For once, someone like them was running the country. The coup
attempt against him in 2002, when he only narrowly avoided execution by
mutinous troops, collapsed because of divisions within the military and, to
the horror of the American-backed opposition, he was reinstated and went on
to win re-election.

Twice divorced, he lives alone these days in the palace; he is “married to the
revolution”, he says. Herma Marksman, his former lover and comrade-in-arms,
thinks all the adulation has gone to his head, and that his “ego has
ballooned out of control”. She recently told another Chavez biographer:
“Hugo thinks he's Rock Hudson.”

Fortunately, an attempt to change the constitution to allow Chavez to be
re-elected indefinitely after his term expires in 2013 was defeated in a
referendum last year. Which leaves Venezuelans facing an intriguing
question: can Chavismo outlive Chavez? Jones does not say, but his portrait
is compelling for its ring of authenticity: he gained unusual access to his
subject, spending hours interviewing him in planes, cars and the
presidential palace in Caracas. The result is a refreshing departure from
the ideologically charged tracts that tend to dominate the debate about

¡Hugo! by Bart Jones
Bodley Head £12.99 pp608

Source: Sunday Times Online