¡Hugo!: the Hugo Chavez story, by Bart Jones

Hero or villain? It depends...
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The Independent Culture

If it were the synopsis for a screenplay, it would seem overblown. A boy born into the care of his grandmother in a mud hut makes it to the country's top military college on the strength of his baseball talent and goes on from there to mount a failed coup, before returning to win a presidential election against an entrenched elite, survive a coup attempt against him, and emerge as the foremost critic of the world's only superpower. It's a story that demands Technicolor and a widescreen, and it's one that has made Hugo Chavez of Venezuela the most talked about Latin American leader since Fidel Castro. Behind this compelling adventure story lies arguably the most intriguing political experiment in the world, and certainly the most active fault line between left- and right-wing world views.

In attempting to address this US journalist Bart Jones stretches the broadest canvas to date. But, ultimately, he delivers a portrait that is more satisfying as a romantic impression than a forensic history. It says much of the failures of mainstream journalism that Jones's work is still the most useful guide to emerge to such a major personality on the world stage.

A single cartoon in The Times ahead of a visit to London two years ago by the Venezuelan president sums up much of the press in this country. It shows Chavez casting a Castro-shaped dark shadow across the continent. Enough said. The US media are even more rabidly one-eyed and regularly employ biblical language for a man many of their editors and politicians insist is an evil dictator, the greatest threat to security in the Americas.

These prejudices are trotted out every time Chavez hits the headlines. Most recently an unsceptical media largely accepted Colombia's claims that the Venezuelan leader is funding the Farc guerrilla group; that a recent referendum was an attempt to install the president as a dictator for life; or that the closure of a television station last year was a blatant attack on freedom of speech. In each case, there are important counterpoints that are either downplayed or omitted completely.

In other words, a full and fair account is badly needed. Jones is unapologetic over his qualification to attempt this, and his starting point is not the typical "whither democracy in Venezuela?". Instead, he begins with life among the poorest slums in South America and builds the case for what was wrong with the country prior to Hugo. What he describes is a two-party democracy straight out of Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists that shored up the interests of a tiny elite while it mired the bulk of the population in a permanent poverty that was not alleviated by the immense hydrocarbon wealth being generated.

It is in this context that we meet the young Hugo, a devotee of baseball who lives in an impoverished world rich in stories and alive with the ghosts of revolutionaries, none more so than Simon Bolivar. It is the fabled Liberator himself whose story sets the tone for what at times feels more like a novel than a biography. The wisdom of hindsight haunts the biographer and, with Chavez, the temptation to reduce his early life to an inevitable narrative is practically overwhelming.

The divisions that see Chavez lauded as a hero to the massed ranks of the poor in Caracas's barrios while he is castigated by much of the middle class are traced to the first oil boom of the 1970s. A case is made for the rollercoaster effect that the rise and fall of the oil price has had on the economy, and the brutal impact that has in turn had on Venezuelan society.

Jones has worked hard to get access to those who have been closest to the relentlessly energetic Chavez but his effort does not always translate into an authoritative reconstruction. This is especially the case with the author's interviews with his actual subject, which have a breathless, hagiographic tone. We are offered a Chavez who is a leader with an instinctive understanding of the poor, a thinker, a born revolutionary and above all a natural star made for politics in a televisual age. The result is fascinating but flawed in a similar fashion to Spanish writer Ignacio Ramonet's efforts with Castro. What we are given little sense of is why so many of his closest supporters have come to abandon the president and his vaguely defined Bolivarian revolution.

The question most readers will want answered remains tantalisingly simple. Is Chavez a good or a bad thing? The answer, even after this heartfelt account, depends on who is asking.