In 1830, Latin America's Great Liberator, Simon Bolívar, died with his dream of a united Gran Colombia crumbling around him. All those enlightened ideals of a free and equal society lost to internecine squabbles over power and plata. "Those who serve a revolution plough the sea," he lamented.
Fast forward to the present and Bolívar's homeland, Venezuela, faces a similar political denouement. Since 1999, one man has dominated the scene in this oil-rich corner of South America: Hugo Chavez. The global media have never been sure what to make of this "21st-century socialist" and his Bolivarian Revolution. To some, "El Comandante" is a tin-pot dictator; part clown, part geopolitical agitator. To others, he's a breath of fresh air in a world sold out to safe, centrist governments and corporate interests.
Rory Carroll is well positioned to provide a verdict. In good reporter fashion, he diligently tracks down his sources, turning up a colourful cast of red-shirted Chavista loyalists, bitter political opponents, and the everyday Venezuelans in between. What emerges is a more intimate image of Chavez than his own propaganda allows. From his passion for baseball to his possible bipolar disorder; his talents and warts, humour and blind spots.
The book also excels in showing what happens when a self-believing ideologue grasps the reins of government and determines not to let go. It's military politics, without the guns: outflanking opponents, consolidating power, barking orders, reprimanding ministers. Chavez's "hyper-centralised, improvised style" of leadership leaves many former insiders out in the cold – a fact Carroll uses to get indirect access to the inner workings of the presidential palace. The picture isn't pretty. Venal politicians, cynical apparatchiks, money-grabbing "Boligarchs". And all the while, a growing clamour of discontent.
So, how does he keep the show on the road? Petro-dollars play a big part. With oil prices riding high for much of his presidency, Chavez could throw money at Venezuela's intractable social problems. For Carroll, however, there is another answer: "he sucked up all the oxygen". The Bolivarian Revolution was allowed one hero and one hero only. The President's voice constantly saturates the airwaves. In his first decade or so in power, he racked up 53 full days on camera. "Whatever the problem, tell a story." The result? An illusionist's web of half-truths, fables and sound bites.
Carroll's tone becomes increasingly critical as the book progresses. By the end, he's positively livid. What irks him is the ever-growing gap between the President's revolutionary rhetoric and Venezuela's daily realities: queues for food, crippling inflation, unsafe streets, raging corruption. Jump to the conclusion of this book and you'd think that Carroll was just another Chavez demoniser. But his criticism is built on an earnest attempt to understand a fascinating politician. The fact that he doesn't much like what he finds will mean he is branded a partisan. Perhaps he is. But this is to miss the point. Chavez, the master narrator, knows that true drama lies not in a story's ending but in the twists and turns it takes to get there. On those terms, Comandante delivers.
Oliver Balch is the author of Viva South America!: A Journey Around a Changing Continent (Faber £10.99)