Author Interviews
10:21 pm
Tue April 9, 2013

'Comandante' Chavez Still Revered By Some, Despite Failings

Originally published on Wed April 10, 2013 4:42 am

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.


Interview Highlights

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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Hugo Chavez is dead. We repeat this month-old news, because apparently, in Venezuela, it's hard to tell. The president of the oil-rich republic who defied the U.S. and promoted his own brand of socialism passed away in March. But Chavez is the biggest issue in a campaign to replace him, and he's still very present within sight of the presidential palace, which is where our colleague Steve Inskeep found him.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: On this hilltop is a military museum, looks rather like a castle. Hugo Chavez is entombed inside. We're in a line here of people who are coming to view the body. The line is no longer miles long, as it was when Chavez lay in another location just after his death. But for weeks, groups of people have been coming here. He's in a granite tomb, surrounded by four members of an honor guard in red, 19th-century uniforms, each holding a sword at his side out of the scabbard, ready to defend.

Before travelling to this tomb, we read a book about the former president and called the author. Rory Carroll wrote "Comandante." He lived in Caracas for six years, stayed long enough to marry a Venezuelan and wrote about Hugo Chavez for The Guardian.

RORY CARROLL: It's slightly surreal, because Chavez has never been more ubiquitous in Venezuela than now. 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. And so 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.

INSKEEP: I wonder if people are talking of him in the past tense or the present tense.

CARROLL: Both. The government often lapses into the present tense, as Chavez vive, Chavez is alive. But, of course, most ordinary Venezuelans do speak of him in the past tense.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about ordinary Venezuelans, because this obviously was a man who had the machinery of the government in his control, had a lot of television stations, had a lot of talent in producing propaganda. But isn't it true that he also had genuine, bedrock support, even love, among a lot of Venezuelans?

CARROLL: Oh, without a doubt. I would say about a third of Venezuelans adored him, right from the beginning, until the end. And it's impressive. I mean, for a guy who's in power for 14 years? And you would trump up the barrios - these hillside slums, where it was his bedrock of support - and these people felt that down below, in the palace, 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.

INSKEEP: You just alluded to so many things that I want to follow up on. First, you talked about hillside slums. Could you explain a little bit of the geography of Caracas, because the economy of Caracas seems to mirror it?

CARROLL: Yes. 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 further into the city, into the downtown, there's an elevated valley there, and the air is much fresher, and this is where the rich and 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 can look down upon them.

INSKEEP: Now, you also said that one of the ways that Chavez connected to the poor was that he looked like them. What did you mean by that?

CARROLL: That his skin was brown, that 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 the color of his skin showed that he was one of the people.

INSKEEP: And I guess if he's talking on television with a pale-skinned guy like you, he wasn't going to miss the opportunity to point out the contrast.

CARROLL: I was a perfect fall guy 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.

INSKEEP: Did he improve the lives of the poor?

CARROLL: 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 he basically rained petrodollars over the country. 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 basic governance and 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.

INSKEEP: Well, when I was thinking about this assignment that you received in 2006, and continued for about half a dozen years, you write for The Guardian, which is one of the famous liberal newspapers of the world. And I wondered if your paper was sympathetic to Chavez as a figure of the left, at least at the beginning.

CARROLL: 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 kind of began 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 in my newspaper, because a lot of editors feel and felt that we should have supported Hugo Chavez, because he was a standard-bearer for the left. Whereas I, just very close up, I thought, well, no, actually, because, sadly, he's running the country into the ground, and we have to report that.

INSKEEP: As incompetent as you say that Chavez's economic management proved to be, Chavez was a great showman.

CARROLL: He was extraordinary as a showman. And at the apogee of this was his final election campaign, 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.

He pumped himself full of drugs, painkillers and steroids, and he pushed his body, which was breaking, to the limit, almost certainly accelerating his death. And there was true pathos, because he felt he was sacrificing himself for the greater good, whereas in reality, he was just lying to his people.

INSKEEP: Rory Carroll is a reporter for The Guardian and author of the new book, "Comandante: Hugo Chavez's Venezuela." Thanks very much.

CARROLL: Thank you very much, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And Steve will be reporting from Venezuela the rest of this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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