photo & text by nacrowe
i sought out and first read COMANDANTE: HUGO CHAVEZ'S VENEZUELA (PENGUIN, 2013) by GUARDIAN journalist RORY CARROLL shortly after learning i would be teaching in VENEZUELA while still a PEACE CORPS volunteer stationed in ALBANIA. it was an intriguing historical moment because by the time i arrived in august of 2013, former president HUGO CHAVEZ had only been dead for a least 6 months. over the next two years i bore witness to a country in sharp economic decline.
more like free fall.
i lived in MATURIN in the east where most of the oil fields are. as an oil brat that grew up in NIGERIA an KUWAIT, i have some familiarity with the sometimes complicated nature of AMERICAN industry in foreign countries. CHAVEZ of course famously nationalized their oil industry and largely banished most oil companies from their reserves. this was seen domestically as a powerful move but crippled their prospects longterm as outside advice regarding technical expertise was now abandoned. when the price of oil dipped during my tenure out there, the effects were quick and painful and VENEZUELA has yet to rebound. in fact they are still in the midst of a humanitarian crisis that is largely the result of such shortsighted policies.
but how did he come to rule? the book presents CHAVEZ as a figure whose power was seen in his braggadocious, confident demeanor, his military background and especially the fact that he was the very physical embodiment of the underclass of VENEZUELAN society, having originated in the rural LLANOS region. VENZUELA, much like the rest of SOUTH AMERICA, has a population that has its origins in EUROPEAN, NATIVE and AFRICAN bloodlines. this being the result of SPANISH conquest in the new world (PORTUGUESE with obvious respect to BRASIL). cultural, religious and linguistic traditions of the continent are profoundly influenced by centuries of EUROPEAN colonization, so unfortunately one carryover is preference for all things EUROPEAN. the experience of watching television in VENEZUELA is where you would be hard pressed to identify people of non-EUROPEAN descent shown in beauty pageants, soap operas, game shows or even news broadcasts. like many others in the region (COLOMBIA, BRASIL, etc.), the media is effectively white-washed. much like BARACK OBAMA (although diametrically dissimilar in terms of their politics), the power of CHAVEZ is in part inseparable from his being the physical embodiment of the unprivileged and underrepresented classes in society.
reading this book i became aware of the narrative of his rise to power, which includes his imprisonment, election, attempted coup and reinstatement. i also grew to be aware of how he structured his public persona and cult of personality that still survives today. in essence he hitched his own to that of a tailored fiction surrounding that of SIMON BOLIVAR, by promoting one he promoted the other. CHAVEZ also create a new layer of bureaucracy between himself and powerful regional governors, whom he could scold and fire at will on his own television show ALO PRESIDENTE ("HELLO, MR. PRESIDENT"). in many ways he was like TRUMP before TRUMP. in essence this added layer of bureaucracy (more democracy!) allowed him to secure a buffer from any and all political fallout that resulted from his disastrous policies.
luckily, i made friends that allowed me to stay in CARACAS and visit many of the landmarks mentioned in this book. in this sense it was infinitely helpful in giving me an understanding of the political climate and recent history i was now entering. where i thought it lacked was in how uncritical CARROLL presents the regime at times. maybe that is an unfair critique, but after living there and witnessing the toll bore on the people of VENEZUELA (whom i found generous, vivacious, energetic, resourceful, selfless and beautiful) in the wake of his death makes me most likely not the most objective observer in that respect.