cover image Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela

Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela

Rory Carroll. Penguin Press, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-59420-457-9

A democratically elected despot; a revolutionary whose main priority is winning campaigns; a showboating clown; a feared tyrant. Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, soon to enter his 13th year of rule, is a mass of contradictions. In this incisive portrait of a histrionic ruler who brooks little criticism, Carroll, the Guardian’s Latin American bureau chief, captures the tragic absurdity of life in a country flush with petrodollars but where many go without adequate health care, and where “Out of Order” signs are switched out for ones promising “Socialist Modernization” as broken-down elevators languish. The book starts with a closeup look at the comandante himself, then successively pulls back the lens on the sycophants who serve as his ministers and advisers, then on the decaying society outside the presidential palace. Chávez runs the country on whims, one week expropriating famed jewelry stores because they stand on the square where Simón de Bolívar was born, another week enthusiastically launching a public health program only to let it flounder. And all this on national TV, where the president’s show Hello, President can run up to eight hours each day. Meanwhile, disastrous economic policies have left the country mired in inflation and shortages, with a creaking infrastructure and shuttered factories. Readers who know Chávez mainly for his anti-U.S. bluster will find some surprises in the true-life black comedy surrounding this mercurial leader. Agent: Will Lippincott, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (Mar.)