Richard Gott’s book Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution is a highly readable account of the rise of one of the most controversial politicians in recent Latin American history. Gott provides a topical historical contextualization as to why it was that the previous constitution was viewed by so many Venezuelans as insufficient to their current social conditions and how it was that the dominant political parties within the country were not able to mobilize enough support to maintain popular credibility and soon withered away.
Gott lucidly shows that Chavez’s rise was a long time in the making due to the problematic internal dynamics of the country and focuses cites as evidence of it’s disorder the caracazo. While the collapse of the Berlin wall received the lions share of the world’s attention due to the implications it had in the Cold War, for Venezuela the caracazo was an event of equal importance. The riots and social unrest unleashed following price adjustments for public transportation in the poorer sections of the city spread out soon leading to the mobilization of the military to quell it. Following the soldiers quashing of unrest, the disintegration of Carlos Perez’s presidency and his Washington Consensus conceived policies of neoliberal reform was soon forthcoming. This event accelerated and deepened the commitment of political actors, especially those in the military, to look for new ways of creating a Venezuela that wasn’t so sharply divided by class.
Chavez’s attempted coup, his subsequent forming of political bonds and the subsequent formation of a 5th Republic Movement give better understanding into the wide support that Chaves has received there. It is in fact noteworthy that even at a time when there were no “Chavistas” in the state apparatus and as a new-comer, in the December 1998 elections that brought Chavez to power he received 56% of electoral votes while the next closest parties receiving 36% and 4%. Narrating the second coup attempt by reactionary elements in the business community and military showcases both his popularity as well as the degree to which the political edifice once in place had deformed. Following his election, Gott illustrates the role that political interest and community groups played in the writing of the new constitution and how it was that the Chavez government actively sought to incorporate previously marginalized communities into the polis, mobilized the military for community development and increase social spending.
In addition to this background, Gott, based upon numerous one-on-one interviews with the now deceased former president, contextualizes the intellectual context in which he operated. Eschewing the quasi-Marxist rhetoric of his friend Fidel Castro, Chavez has instead sought to resuscitate a 19th century revolutionary tradition epitomized by three Venezuelans: Simon Bolivar, Simon Rodriguez y Ezequiel Zamora. Giving the historical context of these three situates Chavez in such a way that he is not some lone, charismatic figure amongst a dark past but one of many in a tradition seeking to reign in the gross inequality that began with the Spanish system of slavery which transformed into quasi-colonial relations with European and American companies for oil exploitation.
Gott cannot be seen as attempting to minimize the radicalism of Chavez through this, for at no point does he obscure the fact that much of the support for him stems from former left-wing radicals. In fact, as he clearly believes that “it is impossible to understand the historical roots of Chavez’s success without reference to the powerful anti-Stalinist communism of De la Plaza and Miquilena that was to influence important sections of the Venezuelan left in the years after the 1940s” (79). People with Trotskyist leanings, such as former governor William Izarra, and former members of long de-mobilized guerilla groups helped shove him into power.
The depiction of a cult of personality around Chavez is common in writings and perceptions of Venezuelan political culture. Considering the country is only recently becoming largely literate, I’ve engaged in several conversation with people who claimed that this was the case there. While Gott’s writings do not go into detail on this fact, it is very clear that not only is there a right-wing oppositions but there is a left-wing opposition to Chavez as well. Ultra-leftists are critical of the manner in which Chavez has sought to actualize progressive policy within the country without enacting immediate, wholesale changes. Chavez has been derided by many of his former supporters as unnecessarily gradualistic and too accommodating, especially to the oil interests. While he was successful in winning the populations allegiance during the petroleum strike of 2002, he also decided to pay for national control of oil sites that had been sold by corrupt politicians to international oil companies rather than simply nationalizing them without recompense.
While Gott does not go into much detail regarding the success or failures of the Mision’s Chavez launched, he is both praising and critical of their functioning. As with the other historiography, Gott limns several of the conditions that are beyond Chavez’s capacity to influence in the short term that make the goal of this mision’s difficult. For instance, one of the tasks of the Chavez government has been the encouragement of movement of the urban poor into the agricultural sections of the country that have long been underused. The reason for this is simple, despite large amounts of fecund land the country’s abundant petroleum wealth artificially increases costs and makes food importing more cost effective. The government would rather, of course, have less people involved in the underground or parallel economy and put to use the land. Lacking capital investment for facilities and equipment, combined with the general preference for urban over rural living, this has been difficult. While government investment has been made in the region for housing and other facilities, actualizing his Plan Bolivar 2000 has been problematic and lead to those structures degenerating. It is not all failures, however. Other projects, such as his successful push to revitalize OPEC and lead to greater oil revenues for the government, are also highlighted.
As a book for understanding the past twenty years of Venezuela’s political climate as well as the Chavez phenomenon I highly recommend the book.