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John Sweeney

Hello, Mr President

Comandante: Inside the Revolutionary Court of Hugo Chávez
By Rory Carroll (Canongate Books 363pp 20)

Tyranny is one of the most successful political forms the world has ever seen, and it continually mutates to prey upon the host, humanity. Hugo Chávez lies stricken with cancer in a hospital bed in Havana, but he has bequeathed a great curse upon Venezuela: a murder rate worse than Iraq's, a broken society, a superheating economy and tons of Kalashnikovs in the barrios. It's pretty dire given the wealth of oil gold Chávez has squandered.

Murder is not Chávez's thing. Under the Comandante, it has been goodbye cosh, hello microphone. Everywhere you go in Venezuela, his chubby face is sure to follow. Previously, his television show Alo Presidente ('Hello, Mr President') boomed out, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch, a Big Brother monologue. But that was not enough: more and more often, Chávez would crash into the scheduled programming of all the country's television - even soap operas - to announce a new this, a new that. He has won every election he has stood in, but if you control the mass media that intensely, you don't have to murder people. Imagine a left-wing Jeremy Clarkson in power and on telly all the time, and you get the drift. Meanwhile, the governance of the country has gone to pot.

Rory Carroll has written a well-considered and painfully fair epitaph for the Chávez regime. A reporter for The Guardian who was once kidnapped in Iraq, Carroll struggles - perhaps with the hopes of his natural readership in mind - to see the good in Chávez, and the opening of the book is encumbered for the first hundred pages with respect for the aspirations of the Chavistas. But Chávez is a hero only until you meet him. Carroll had a spot on Alo Presidente, during which he pluckily challenged the great man over why he was scrapping term limits for himself but not for mayors and governors. He got no proper answer to his question.

Along the way, Chávez has conned a lot of people. Noam Chomsky gets a light patter of applause for finally taking umbrage with the regime when Chávez obtained the imprisonment of María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who freed the 'wrong' man for the simple reason that there was no proper charge or evidence against him. Under Chávez, the rule of law has died.

Five years ago I made a documentary for BBC Two about Chávez and ended up myself on Alo Presidente. Treading carefully, I placed my scepticism in the mouth of Boris Johnson, who, I explained, was the one who looked like an electrocuted polar bear (all of this translated into Spanish by a hapless BBC colleague). The mayor of London had asked why, under the terms of a deed signed by his predecessor Ken Livingstone, a poor country such as Venezuela should subsidise buses in a rich city like London. The president berated me: 'This question can only occur to a stupid one' - a garland I wear with pride.

Venezuela imprinted four strong impressions on me: that Chávez is a crushing bore; that his sidekicks are revoltingly corrupt; that crime is worse there than anywhere else I've visited in South America; and that the previous regime was ghastly too. A restaurant in a posh hotel in Caracas frequented by the anti-Chavistas stands out in my memory: stifling formality and an unspoken snobbery were the order of the day. No wonder the poor love Chávez so.

And yet he has let them down, dreadfully. Two good tests of a reasonably well-run country are security and the ability to move around the capital city. Caracas fails dismally on both fronts: spasms of gunfire afflict it day and night; the traffic is like glue, because no proper thought or resources have been put into public transport. As a result many of the people who voted for Chávez end up bleeding to death, as Carroll reports from the crime-hit barrios, while the rich glide by in their blacked-out limos, full of fear and hate. Well-considered government, or thought-out compassion paid for by the taxation of a successful economy, does not exist in Venezuela. The economy is, in fact, a joke. The country should be a Saudi Arabia by the sea; instead the oil money has been pissed away by foolish adventurism and unchecked corruption. So how has Chávez stayed in power for so long?

The original sin of the democratic opposition to Chávez was the coup of 2002, which failed both practically and morally, saddling the Comandante's enemies with the stain of fascism. True, Chávez, when an army officer, had staged his own failed coup against an unpopular right-wing president back in 1992, but that has somehow been forgotten by history.

Carroll quotes Gabriel García Márquez, writing after he met the president shortly before his first inauguration, in 1999. The novelist reflected that he had met two men: one was a man who might just save his country; the other was 'an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot'. Fluency and folk wisdom in a television age masked the reality: Hugo Chávez whipped the masses with a cathode-ray tube.


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John Sweeney's latest book is Church Of Fear: Inside the Weird World of Scientology, published by Silvertail Books.


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Royal Literary Fund