(Letter to the Editor, Times Literary Supplement, Sept 7 2001)
Hugo Chávez, the latest Latin American chieftain, who, machete in hand, proudly repeats in political rallies the Carib’ motto: Ana Karina Rote (“Only we are people”), indeed deserves attention. Not quite the adulatory attention that Richard Gott (In the Shadow of the Liberator), and to a lesser extent, Alastair Hennessy (Just the two of us, TLS, Aug. 24 2001) have paid him, but critical attention. Chávez, who now wields immense power, has confessed to being a conspirator since his teens. Even Richard Gott admits that Chávez’s motley crew of advisors has included noted anti-Semite, and ultra-nationalist, Norberto Ceresole (In the Shadow, 131-32). Since taking office in 1998, Chávez, the former paratrooper, has dramatically changed Venezuela. Great ingenuity is needed in order to argue that Venezuela is still a democracy, though it was, until Chavez, and in spite of its many shortcomings, the strongest one in Latin America. In addition to having concentrated all power in himself and his chums, thereby rendering the separation of powers utterly spurious, Chávez has changed the name of Venezuela (now Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela), and has enacted a new constitution, which will allow him legally to remain in power for thirteen years. The last Latin American ruler to engage in this sort of constitutional maneuver was Peru’s Alberto Fujimori.
Surprisingly, both Gott and Hennessy ignore these issues. Though Hennessy wishes to distance himself from Gott’s enthusiasm regarding Chávez, reminding us about the “ambivalent successes of Peronist Argentina and the Bolivian revolution”, already to refer to these cases as successes (albeit ambivalent ones) is to give the game away. By and large, Hennessy, like Gott, seems blinded by how “interesting” and “thought-provoking” Chávez is, as he avoids any critical assessment of Chávez’s regime and of Gott’s take on it. Hennessy merely, and almost grudgingly, faults Gott for not caring about some issues he cares about. Hennessy would have liked Gott to explore what would have happened if “Venezuela and Cuba [had] been able to co-operate after the overthrow of their respective dictatorships in 1958 and 1959”, to examine whether, given “the huge post-war Italian immigration [no larger than Spanish or Portuguese immigration, incidentally]” the Mafia is “a force” in Venezuela, to assess “the role of women and popular music in raising political awareness” and other issues whose importance is debatable. Far from criticizing, Hennessy actually echoes Gott’s acrimonious, sweeping generalization: Venezuela is “a society of gangsters and looters”.
Gott ended his book with a whimsical discussion about the abundance of Worcestershire sauce brands in Venezuela, and by, tongue in cheek – one would have hoped – making connections between the marketing of the sauce and global capitalism. Hennessy takes Gott seriously, imploring his readers to pay attention to Gott’s discussion of Worcestershire sauce, insofar as, “in microscopic detail”, it “masterly… illuminate[s] the workings of international capitalism”. Day in and day out Chavez’s government reveals itself to be incapable of remedying the vices of the ancien régime: nepotism is at an all-time high, state bureaucracy has reached Orwellian proportions, corruption scandals have multiplied exponentially, and Chávez’s attacks on the free press (“traitors”) and on his opponents (“squealing pigs”) presage full-blown totalitarianism. Meanwhile, Gott and Hennessy, infatuated with Chávez’s so called revolution and with military radicalism in the land of magical realism, dissertate about Worcestershire sauce.