I read this dense and compact biography of one of the most remarkable leaders of the 21st Century after I returned from El Salvador where I learned of the innovative aid that Venezuela extends across Latin America. In El Salvador agreements about eye surgery and oil imports are made directly with the FMLN because El Salvador is governed by a right-wing pro-American party which won’t deal with Venezuela. Elsewhere Chavez and his government have initiated new international media networks and trade agreements.
When I read recently that Venezuela now has possibly the world’s largest oil reserves, I could see that this vision and resource rich country is more than a nuisance threat to USA hegemony, it is a major challenge to the world’s most powerful state – and a supplier of its vital petroleum. New plans to form and train the hemisphere’s largest territorial army in Venezuela send a direct message to the USA – this is a country that takes itself and its global power seriously. The message does not need to go far – the USA is in neighbouring Colombia and now plans to increase its military presence in Curacao, (thanks to the Dutch government) a nearby island, where the USA air base will be expanded to include a naval base.
Richard Gott is a good writer and this is an engrossing and highly readable history – personal, cultural and political all at the same time. He is a former Latin America correspondent and features editor for the Guardian. A specialist in Latin American affairs, he worked in the 1960s at the University of Chile. He has written other books on Venezuela as well as on Cuba. His breadth of knowledge and background in the region is impressive and he explains and illuminates with ease the complex history of this new leader and his country.
Chavez first attempted a military coupe – for which he was imprisoned – but came to the realization that peaceful means were a better way to achieve democracy. Gott says, “Chavez did not emerge from a vacuum. He was heir to the revolutionary traditions of the Venezuelan left.” He also has a family inheritance of political activism and public service. His colleagues include old guerilla fighters and civilian leaders. His family is part of his political circle as well. A loyal army has saved him from one coup attempt and is backing his plans to build a citizen based army to protect Venezuela from foreign attacks. Chavez also comes from a place where social movements flourish and in these times, they intersect with political action. He has also inherited a reality of vast social and economic inequality, Chavez is trying to empower and involve the poor while trying to find work, land and homes for the people and to clean up corruption in the urban police who harass the poor.
Gott has many personal stories about Chavez, his humour, his sense of theatre, a man with a great intellect and knowledge of history. He is described by a friend as, “…a great pragmatic romantic, a mixture of passion with calculation.” Gott also includes criticism and critics of Chavez, but his book makes it clear that this leader, his party & supporters combined with the power of petroleum are a major force in international politics.
Chavez may not be a doctrinaire socialist, he seeks to curb the excesses of ‘savage neoliberalism’ while encouraging small business and development; but he does have a sense of urgency about the massive inequality in Venezuela – based on race, class and poverty. He will need all his political and personal strengths in order to deliver social justice to his citizens while supplying 10% of its oil consumption to the USA, building up the military and while trying to transform all of Latin America with his Bolivarian dream which includes also the dream of repopulating rural areas with the urban dispossessed and poor.
The book is chock full of interesting tidbits, worth the price alone, just to read about Chavez and Castro playing ball together, why Miss Venezuela wins so many ‘beauty’ contests and finally after an impressive appendix of The Rights of Indigenous Peoples, comes an appendix on Worcestershire Sauce – a fable of globalization and capital and a spicy tale of the complexity of today’s world.
Gott has written an engaging book that we can all read, enjoy and learn from – a story of politics, history and culture and a lesson in hope and possibility.