Venezuela, once the beauty queen of Latin American democracies, has lost her good looks.  Today, the oil-rich country is more often compared with communist Cuba than with democratic Costa Rica.  Venezuela’s dramatic fall from grace has many causes, but most would blame Hugo Chávez Frias, her president since 1998 and, today, Latin America’s most successful power artist.  The ex-paratrooper and coup plotter dominates his nation’s politics as no figure has done since Rómulo Betancourt in the 1960’s or, perhaps more aptly, since the dictator Juan Vicente Gómez in the early 20th century.  Chávez’s career confirms how one man can overwhelm even a mature Latin democracy.

Years ago, in The Machiavellians, James Burnham warned of modern democracy’s tendency to devolve into Bonapartism, the centralization of power in one man and the war against liberty in the name of democracy.  Chávez deserves special study as an exemplar of this political pathology.  He has, after all, won three general elections and willingly submitted to a recall referendum.  All his coups against his nation’s democratic institutions have been ratified by the people’s vote.

Although he encourages comparison with Castro, Chávez bears, in my opinion, more of a resemblance to Louisiana governor and senator Huey P. Long, the Bonaparte of the Bayou whose popularity and ambition extended beyond his native state.  Like Long, Chávez is a democratic caesar, practicing zero-sum politics and exercising sweeping powers within the framework of a democracy.  As Huey once did, Chávez consistently outmaneuvers or bullies his opponents and beguiles his followers with comic menace.  “I may not be the smartest man in the world,” the self-described “Kingfish” reputedly said, “but I am the smartest man in Louisiana.”  Chávez could justifiably make a similar boast.

Several biographies have appeared lately on Chávez, typically written by authors who admire the new Bonapartism.  But the new Chávez biography by Marcano and Barrera, two reporters from a major Caracas daily, strives for evenhandedness as it treats the life of this poor boy from the sticks who tried to force his way to power but instead won election as his nation’s leader.

Evenhandedness, though, has its drawbacks.  The authors take for granted Chávez’s conspiring and leave it to the reader to decide whether Chávez was essentially motivated by a passion to rid Venezuela of a corrupt government or by an overweening will to power.  Venezuelans of all stripes saw the same failings in the petrodemocracy without resorting to extraconstitutional solutions.

The young Chávez appears to have had little ambition other than to play baseball and join the army.  Stories presaging his future greatness seem invented by their tellers long after the fact.  Perhaps the one unusual event during his early years was his tutoring by the village Marxist.  Encouraged to read Venezuelan history through a leftist prism, Chávez embraced a radical ideology centered, somewhat incongruously, on the aristocratic Simón Bolívar.  This informal education apparently persuaded Chávez to reject his nation’s two-party “pacted” democracy, even though his parents were longtime Christian Democrats.

As a cadet, Chávez visited Peru in the 1970’s under that country’s “national revolutionary regime,” which impressed him with the armed forces’ potential as a revolutionary vanguard.  With some irony, the authors note that Chávez’s graduating class at his military academy was the first product of the effort to professionalize the Venezuelan army.  Later, as a communications expert, Chávez hosted his own radio show in a rural posting, cultivating the demagogic skills he would later employ to great effect.  Perhaps more revealing was Chávez’s association, after his aborted coup attempt, with the Argentine fascist Norberto Ceresole, who preached that the modern postliberal state must forge a nexus between the leader, the people, and the army.  Chávez’s opponents have made much of their brief alliance.  The Ceresole interlude reveals that Chávez, like other successful strongmen, has a right hand as well as a left, and he likes to use them both.

His eclectic ideology aside, Chávez would be nothing without uncanny luck.  As his biographers relate, he has turned numerous setbacks into successes.  His coup attempt in 1992, an open conspiracy ten years in the making, collapsed miserably.  But in defeat, this master of fortune shone.  Appearing on national TV to order his followers to stand down, Chávez announced that the conspiracy had failed, “for now.”  His words captured the imagination of a frustrated and cynical public.  Opponents of the governing parties, hardly revolutionaries themselves, saw him as the leader they had longed for to cure the ills of the Venezuelan system.

Marcano and Barrera detail how the old order assisted Chávez in bringing about its own demise.  The defense minister, who had long ignored the Chávez conspiracy, helped him broadcast his message nationally.  More remarkably, President Rafael Caldera–one of the democracy’s founders—pardoned Chávez, despite his crimes against the state, in hopes of domesticating the popular soldier.  Later, the country’s richest man financed Chávez’s presidential campaign.  Like the French aristocrats who donned the revolutionary cockade, Venezuela’s ruling class appeared to have lost its survival instincts.

Adapting himself easily to electoral politics and vowing, among other things, “to boil the heads” of his opponents, Chávez decisively won the presidential election in 1998 and single-handedly destroyed Venezuela’s two-party system.

President Chávez acted swiftly, keeping his promise to institute a new constitution that centralized his power.  His opponents were divided and feckless, with no leader matching his charisma and presence.  They slowly rallied, however, when Chávez tried to force a leftist curriculum on private schools and restrict private property.  By 2002, the opposition initiated a popular uprising combined with a military coup.  An enormous demonstration headed for Miraflores, the presidential palace, and clashed with Chávez’s gun-toting supporters.  The army stepped in and arrested Chávez for using lethal force against the people.

But the new opposition junta offered no alternative to Chávez’s populism.  Old-guard politicians and union officials swiftly abandoned the interim president.  Meanwhile, the coup plotters, instead of frogmarching Chávez to the nearest plane for Havana, tried to make him sign a resignation letter.  After two days of confusion, pro-Chávez military officers insisted he be returned to Miraflores.  Once again, Chávez had turned defeat into victory.

Chávez’s political near-death experience encouraged him not to compromise but to radicalize his agenda even further.  A general strike succeeded only in pushing neutral military elements into Chávez’s camp.  By the time the opposition forced a recall referendum against him in 2004, it was too late.  Backed by now-loyal institutions and high oil prices—and fortified by his control of the electoral process—Chávez coasted to victory.

Throughout the book, the authors show Chávez slowly developing into a poster child for Lord Acton’s warning about absolute power.  Apparently, he can indulge in any political or personal fantasy he wishes and make it come true.  Despite some recent setbacks, Chávez appears determined to turn Venezuela into a socialist dictatorship.

How will this story end?  In an interview several years ago, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez couldn’t decide whether Chávez was a savior of his country or an “illusionist” poised to become another despot.  Chávez might last in power for decades like his hero Castro or, like Huey Long, become a victim of the discord he has sowed.  Many Venezuelans have made opposing Chávez their lives’ work.  Today, university students have joined traditional interest groups in protesting his authoritarian moves.  Throughout his rule, and despite his evident gifts, Chávez has been unable to avoid crisis.  Perhaps even the smartest man in Venezuela cannot master fortune forever.


[Hugo Chávez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela’s Controversial President, by Christina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka (New York: Random House) 352 pp., $27.95]