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Comandante by Rory Carroll

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Hugo Chavez is a phenomenon. He has been compared to Napoleon, Nasser, Peron and Castro but the truth is there has never been a leader like him. He is democratically elected, reigns like a monarch from a mobile television throne, and provokes adoration and revulsion in equal measure. How did a charismatic autocrat seduce not just a nation but a significant part of world opinion? And how does he continue to stay in power despite the crumbling of Venezuela? When he first came to power in 1999, Chavez became a symbol of hope and freedom for his people. Yet, in his thirteen years as president, Chavez has seized control of the lucrative Venezuelan oil industry, allowed basic government functions to wither, jailed political opponents and courted Castro and Ahmadinejad, all while occupying much of Venezuela’s airwaves with his long-running television show, Alo Presidente! In “Comandante”, acclaimed journalist Rory Carroll breaches the walls of Miraflores Palace to tell the inside story of Chavez’s life and his political court in Caracas. Blending the lyricism and strangeness of magical realism with the brutal, ugly truth of authoritarianism – a powerful combination reminiscent of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “The Emperor” – Rory Carroll has written a cautionary tale for our times.

In cool, lucid prose, Rory Carroll unpicks the threads that weave together to form a modern-day dictatorship, no less sinister for its relative absence of bloodshed. The portrait of Venezuela that emerges is as nuanced as it is ultimately chilling. Hugo Chavez’s story perfectly illustrates the fact that all that is necessary for the triumph of demagoguery is for good men to do nothing — Michela Wrong author of In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz * Rory Carroll’s brilliant portrait of Chavez reads like a fast-paced novel of ego run amok, an ego that happens to be attached to a masterful politician, a dynamo of energy and charisma, and a colossus of managerial ineptitude. The Comandante is by turns heartbreaking, maddening, absurd, and surreal, a truly epic story of promise squandered and opportunities lost. It’s one thing for the general to be lost in his labyrinth, quite another when he drags the entire country with him into the maze — Ben Fountain author of Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk

My Review

Rory Carroll takes you inside the walls of Miraflores palace and shows us how Hugo Chavez rose to power. He tells and shows his skill in politics and his failure in having a peaceful Venezuela. He takes you back to his dreams and a pledge under a particular acacia tree in 1982, where once in 1830 Bolivar made an oath to free and empower his people, and onto the military conspiracy and coup to take leadership.

The author writes on the successes and the failures, he covers in great detail from solider to president, the power journey till this day where he is now ailing in health due to cancer. A story of power and revolution.
I never knew much of Chavez until reading this.
The facts speak for themselves anyone who promises to lead and aid people must have some responsible peace but with the high murder rate, kidnappings and drug trafficking something is not right and this author shows you what he did well and what he failed at.
Love Chavez or hate him, this is a brilliant portrait layered out in words.

It was interesting to learn of Gabriel Garcia Marquez interviewing Hugo Chavez a great writer who seems to be around many a powerful man including Fidel Castro.
I am now inspired to read soon The Autumn of Patriarch by him a book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while.

Fidel Castro to the left and Gabriel Gracia Marquez to the right.

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Excerpts:

“What Chavez said mattered. He was a master of language and communication. He toyed with words, revived old ones, coined new ones, made them sing and sting. Words can provoke reactions and create their own reality. In Venezuela words spawned hatred and polarisation. Chavez’s spurned allies found their voice and hurled back their own insults.”

“On 17 December 1982, the anniversary of Bolivar’s death in 1830, Chavez was the chosen orator for a barracks ceremony. He told the assembled soldiers to picture the liberator in the sky, watchful, frowning, because what he had left undone remained undone. Afterwards Chavez, Baduel and two other captains, Jesus Urdaneta Hernandez and Felipe Acosta Carles, jogged six miles to the Saman del Guere, an acacia tree under whose shade Bolivar used to rest. It was a humid, sticky day and the friends arrived drenched in sweat, Chavez last. There they plucked leaves, a military ritual, and Chavez improvised another speech, this time paraphrasing Bolivar’s famous 1805 oath: I swear to the God of my fathers, I swear on my homeland, I swear on my honour, that I will not let my soul feel repose, nor my arm rest until my eyes have seen broken the chains that oppress us and our people by the order of the powerful. The others echoed his words, and a conspiracy was born.”

“Colombian cocaine had long trickled through Venezuela en route to Europe and the US. Under the comandante it became a stream, then a river. It was not his intention, but it flowed from his decisions.”

“The revolution inherited grave social problems and made them worse. In 1998, the year before Chavez took office, there were 4,500 murders, a grim per capita rate on par with much of Latin America. A decade later it had tripled to more 17,000 per year, making Venezuela , more dangerous than Iraq, and Caracas one of the deadliest cities on earth. Eight times more murderous, it was calculated, than Bogota, Colombia’s capital. With less than one percent of cases ever solved it was, all things considered, a good place to commit murder. Kidnappings, previously a rarity, became an industry with an estimated 7,000 abductions per year. To allay their terror the rich and middle class invested in bodyguards and armoured cars, or emigrated, but most of the killing and dying was done by gangs – in slums fighting for drugs, turf, women and prestige.”

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 01 March 2013