The following book review of 'Hugo' by Bart Jones points out that once again rumours of the demise of Hugo Chavez and the 'Bolivarian Revolution' in Venezuela may be greatly exaggerated. The process of transforming Venezuela into a participatory democracy continues and the defeat of the constitutional reform package last December has not reversed that process. That poll result, which the opposition has claimed as a great victory and which the mainstream media likes to point to as the beginning of the end for Chavez, was in reality more a sign of the political empowerment and enlightenment of those who support Chavez but are not content to blindly follow him. In the grand scheme of the peaceful political revolution underway in Venezuela, it was a small speed bump in the road rather than the stop sign or the roadblock that many would like to paint it as. The fact that many of those who support the transformation underway also have a desire to proceed with caution is a reflection of their determination to see the entire process succeed. It also stems from their recognition of the danger of the elements of bureaucracy and corruption that threaten the process from within, as well as from without. Far from being a defeat for Chavez, the referendum was more a positive and encouraging sign for those who support the revolution that he initiated. It showed that the people wield true democratic power and have the wisdom to use it, and after all, that is the ultimate goal. - Editor
Seumas Milne welcomes a timely biography of Venezuela's president
Saturday June 7, 2008
by Bart Jones
608pp, Bodley Head, £12.99
In the decade since he was first elected president of oil-rich Venezuela as a rank outsider and exploded the country's oligarchic racket of a governing system, Hugo Chávez has become a political figure of global importance. Not only has he spearheaded a challenge to US domination and free-market dogma that has since swept across Latin America, but his "Bolivarian revolution" has also been the first real attempt since the collapse of the Soviet Union to carve out a social alternative to the neoliberal order that has been imposed across the world.
So it was no surprise when his many enemies, both at home and abroad, seized on Chávez's first rejection in a popular vote last December as an overdue sign that the upstart lieutenant colonel had finally lost his touch. The evidence from this closely researched account of Chávez's career suggests that such hopes are premature. Throughout a life that has taken him from a childhood of dirt poverty in the remote Venezuelan plains to both international acclaim and demonisation, Chávez has time and again shown an uncanny capacity not only to extricate himself from setbacks and life-threatening situations, but also to judge the right time to retreat or retrench in order to move forward later on. In the past few months, he has concentrated the government's fire on issues such as crime, corruption and milk shortages, which had eroded public confidence. With oil prices at an all-time high, Chávez's room for manoeuvre is if anything increasing, threatened only by continuing military provocations from the US-backed Colombian regime.
Such problems might seem manageable when set against Chávez's personal history of underground conspiracies, military uprisings, prison, kidnapping, counter-coups and repeated narrow escapes from death. Bart Jones effectively evokes the mesmeric grip on the imaginations of Chávez and his fellow revolutionaries of the 19th-century radical nationalist Simón Bolívar, south America's great liberation hero in the war against the Spanish empire, as well as the web of personal loyalties and betrayals that marked Chávez's painstaking construction of a secret movement aimed at overthrowing the country's established order.
But as a former AP reporter and Catholic mission worker in the Caracas slums, Jones really comes into his own in a series of gripping accounts of the violent convulsions that have punctuated Chávez's career: from the "Caracazo" massacre of over a thousand barrio dwellers and protesters against neoliberal reforms in 1989; to the military rebellion against the corrupt regime which made Chávez's name in 1992; to the abortive elite-orchestrated coup attempt against Chávez in April 2002, during which his captors argued in front of him about whether he should be killed. The extent of US backing for that coup attempt remains chilling six years later, as was the shameless celebration by US media of the assumed overthrow of an elected head of state. That visceral hostility to Venezuela's experiment in social reform and participatory democracy under Chávez remains undimmed today, reflected in current US attempts to have the country classified as a sponsor of terrorism.
Against that background, Jones's biography is a timely and compendious corrective. Broadly sympathetic without being starry-eyed, this is a journalistic rather than analytical account; but given that what happens in revolutionary Venezuela now arguably matters around the world more than at any time in its history, a book that seeks to tell the story of its architect fairly has got to be welcome.
· To order Hugo for £11.99 with free UK p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop