Hugo Chavez died in March, but his ghost still lingers in Venezuela. He was president for well over a decade and, according to journalist Rory Carroll, his oversize influence hasn’t faded.
“It’s slightly surreal, because Chavez has never been more ubiquitous in Venezuela than now. His face greets you from the airport the moment you arrive; there are posters of him everywhere; there are fresh murals of him around the city; his voice booms from the radio; recordings of him singing the national anthem fill government rallies,” Carroll says. “It’s as if he’s still there, but of course, he’s not. As if the government is running a ghost as their presidential candidate.”
Carroll lived in Caracas, Venezuela, for seven years as the Latin America correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian. He became well-established in the country, marrying a native Venezuelan and reporting extensively on Chavez’s government.
In his new book, Comandante: Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, Carroll describes Chavez’s rise to power and what he saw as the president’s catastrophic mismanagement. Carroll joins NPR’s Steve Inskeep to talk about Chavez’s support base, his impact on the poor and his gift of showmanship.
On Chavez’s base of support among poor Venezuelans
“I would say about a third of Venezuelans adored him right through everything. From the beginning, right until the end. And, it’s impressive. I mean, for a guy who’s in power for 14 years? And you would tramp up the barrios — these hillside slums were his bedrock of support — and these people felt that down below in the palace, in Miraflores, there was a guy who was on their side — that he was their champion. He looked like them, he spoke like them. He was them. And that was an incredibly powerful connection that Chavez was able to maintain all through his 14 years in power.
“Venezuela is a country of extremes — and extreme inequality. And this is reflected in just, when you enter Caracas, there are these very steep valleys, and up on the slopes are these cheaply built, red brick, corrugated tin roof slums, and they’re kind of clinging to the hillsides, and this is where the poor people live. And if you continue more into the downtown, there’s an elevated valley there, and the air is much fresher, it’s cooler, you have some respite from the tropical heat — and this is where the rich, the middle class tend to live. And so there’s a very jarring juxtaposition there, of wealth and poverty, and Chavez was able, of course, to tap into this disenchantment with the poor, because they could see the rich, they could look down upon them.”
On how Chavez used his racial heritage to connect with the populace
“His skin was brown … he had indigenous and African slave ancestry, and he was very proud of it, and I think rightly so, and he would often allude to this. He — one time, when I was on his television show, I had a sort of clash with him, I asked him a question which he didn’t like. And in a long, long answer to me, he at one point showed his arm and said, look at the color of my skin. Look who I am. I am of this land, and this is my heritage — meaning that he was not of the pale-skinned elites, or these kind of blond, blue-eyed Venezuelans who had so often certainly dominated media and business, and he felt that here he was, and the fact — the color of his skin showed that he was one of the people, el pueblo.
“I was a perfect fall guy or rhetorical punch bag, in the sense that, yes, I’m Irish, freckly and blond, or ginger, if you like — I was in that sense a perfect foil as a stand-in agent of imperialism.”
On whether Chavez improved the lives of poor Venezuelans
“Yes and no. Venezuelans have more money in their pockets than when he first came to power, which is unsurprising, because he coincided with an incredible oil boom, and billions of dollars rained into the treasury every week. … He basically rained petrodollars over the country, certainly in his first seven years in power. And in that sense the poor did benefit, but the problem is that his management style was so chaotic and he was always prioritizing politics over governance and basic economic management, that dysfunction and atrophy kicked in. And we can see this, for example, in the fact that the currency has lost 90 percent of its value, that inflation is among the highest in the Western Hemisphere, and that insecurity, violent crime, kidnappings, murders, spiraled out of control. And the biggest victims of all of that are the poor.”
On the way The Guardian, a liberal newspaper, was initially sympathetic to Chavez
“Well, it’s a good question. Yes, at the beginning — and I think most liberals and right-thinking people would have been, in his first couple of years in power. There was plenty of reason to give him any benefit of the doubt. Now, over time, when he became a bit more oppressive, shutting down television stations, and when the wheels were kind of beginning to come off the economy in some ways, I, in my own reporting, became very critical, just reflecting what I saw on the ground. And this prompted quite a debate, internal debate, in my newspaper, because a lot of editors then and to this day feel and felt that we should have supported Hugo Chavez because he was a standard-bearer for the left. Whereas I, very close up, I thought, well, no, actually. Because sadly, he’s running the country into the ground and we have to report that.”
On Chavez’s showmanship and his deceptive final campaign
“He was extraordinary as a showman. And the apogee of this was last October’s presidential election, when he was in the advanced stages of cancer and yet he declared himself completely cancer-free. I think for him it was a sense of sacrifice. He felt that he had to give the impression that he was going to live, because this would mean that he could then win the election and try to safeguard the revolution even in the short term, and what this meant was that he pumped himself full of drugs — painkillers and steroids — and he pushed his body, which was breaking, and he pushed it to the limit, almost certainly accelerating his death. And there was true pathos, because he felt he was sacrificing himself for the revolution, for the greater good, whereas in reality he was just lying to his people.”