Venezuela 101

By Charles Hardy
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In the last six months, three books have appeared on the market that I
believe form an excellent introduction to recent Venezuelan history.

The first to read would be Cowboy in Caracas: A North American’s Memoir of Venezuela’s Democratic Revolution .
Ok, I wrote the book, but that’s not the reason I say to start with it.
And, if you want to throw out this suggestion as being self-serving,
feel free to do so, but please do continue to consider my opinion on
the other books.

There are two reasons I suggest starting with Cowboy in Caracas .
One is that it is relatively short and gives anyone who is or is not
familiar with Venezuela a quick overview of recent Venezuelan history
and of the current reality. Hopefully, it will quickly whet appetites
to learn more about Venezuela.

More importantly, although I
wrote the book, I don’t feel it is my book. I have tried to present the
views of the majority of Venezuelans, the barrio dwellers. They, in my
opinion, are the protagonists of what is happening here and what will
happen here in the future. The last paragraph reads: “I have no idea
what the future of Hugo Chávez Frias will be. But this book is not
meant to be a book about Hugo Chávez nor is it about a giant. It is
about a process, a people, the common Venezuelan people—perhaps not
only the best-kept secret of the Caribbean, but also the world’s
best-kept secret of democracy.” That is why I think the book has value.

The next book to read would be Bart Jones’s
HUGO! The Hugo Chávez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution.
This is a biography of Chávez. And although I maintain the primary
importance of the ordinary Venezuelan in the process, Chávez is to me a
reflection of this ordinary citizen. Therefore, a close glimpse at his
life gives one a good idea of why so many people identify with him.

Bart Jones is an excellent journalist and writer. In the book, he has
mingled his skills of gathering what others have written about Chávez
with what he has gained from his own personal interviews. He has walked
down many Venezuelan streets and roads to gather the information he
presents. He has lived among the wealthy and among the less fortunate,
a qualification that few English-speaking writers have.

Having written for newspapers for years, his style of writing is easily
readable. I found myself addicted to the pages. One of my favorite
items is on page 204 of the book where an Associated Press article of 2
April 1997 is quoted: “Few Venezuelans think the retired lieutenant
colonel has a serious chance of winning, since his once sky-high
popularity has plummeted.” The byline of that article is that of Bart
Jones. It is good to read an author who is willing to smile at himself.
It is rare to find a journalist who is willing to do so. The citation
could have been left out; Bart didn’t and I think that says a lot about
the quality of the book.

From time to time, Bart would share a chapter that he was writing with
me. He had interviewed Chávez before he was elected president, but as I
read the manuscript Bart was writing I often thought how much better
the book would be if he could once again get an interview with Chávez
in order to answer questions that had arisen. He managed to get such an
interview a few months ago (over four hours of one-on-one
conversation). The book is much richer because of the interview.

Then I would suggest reading the book by Gregory Wilpert, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government Greg has lived in Venezuela for several years and directs the Venezuelanalysis
website . While the previous books mention the government policies of
recent years, this book analyzes the governance, economic, social, and
foreign policies. It shows the positive and negative sides of these
policies and points out their successes and failures.

book also looks to the future with a chapter on “Opportunities,
Obstacles, and Prospects,” and another on “Twenty-first Century
Although Greg is a former Fulbright Scholar, I admire his ability to
write about all these topics in a way that even I feel I understand the
wisdom that he is sharing.

By the way, speaking of sharing, I would have preferred the title to
have been “Changing Venezuela by Sharing Power” instead of “by Taking
Power.” I think it would be a more accurate description of what is
happening here.

I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that both Bart and Greg and their
families are my friends. I’ve shared birthdays, weddings and baptisms
with them and have been a guest in their homes several times. We have
shared our frustrations and joys in being writers, our struggles in
looking for publishers, and our desire to get a more accurate message
out about what is happening in Venezuela.

I find it somewhat incredible that, although all of us were writing
books about Venezuela at the same time, we came up with three books
that are so different and that complement one another so nicely.

I would also like to mention that the links for purchasing these books
are to a bookstore in Portland, Oregon, Powell’s, instead of Amazon,
Borders or Barnes & Noble. There are two reasons for this. One is
that Powell’s is an independent bookstore and I think we should support
independent dealers as much as possible. Independent bookstores were my
hosts when I was touring the U.S. They are neat places, but they do
have to struggle to compete against the big corporations. For example,
I was scheduled to speak at Cody’s in San Francisco in May but they
closed a few weeks before I arrived.

In contrast to the openness of the independent bookstores to new
authors, I approached the manager of the Barnes & Noble store in my
hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming. All the personnel there have always been
friendly, but I soon realized that their hands are tied by corporate
decisions. The store had sold all the copies they had ordered of my
book, but were going to order some more. I asked could I loan them some
until the others arrived. I was going to be signing books after the
Frontier Days’ parade and thought maybe people would be interested in
buying them at Barnes & Noble. No, company policy! Could I put up a
poster about the book signing? No, company policy!

Fortunately, all the supermarkets in town had no problem with putting
up such a poster. Wouldn’t it have been nice if the local Barnes &
Noble management had more to say about running the store in the
community where they work?

That leads me to the second reason that I recommend Powell’s: their workers formed a labor union, ILWU Local 5.
That didn’t happen without a struggle but the workers did succeed and
today are unionized. I would recommend using the link above to read
about the process. The links that I have to the three books above, all
pass through the ILWU Local 5 website so that the union will receive 10 per cent of the sales. You might consider buying more books there in the future.

I plan to do so.

(Other essays by Hardy can be found on his personal blog . You may write him at [email protected].)