Close observers portray Hugo Chávez variously as a passionate servant of the forgotten poor, an insecure mulatto mesmerized by power, or an autocratic megalomaniac, but none accuses the former military commander of being a dedicated democrat. In the riveting, stupendously researched Hugo Chávez, two top Venezuelan journalists also reveal that the teenage Chávez was intensively tutored in Marxism and the aspiring ruler dedicated his 20 years in the military to political conspiracies aimed at seizing the presidential palace by force. Interestingly, Chávez's obsessive pursuit of power began in the 1970s, prior to the two decades of low oil prices and a demographic boom that decimated Venezuelan living standards and certainly before the wave of globalization and neoliberal reforms that have become Chávez's bêtes noires. Rather, his inspirations lie in deeper currents: provincial resentments, nationalist mythologies, militarist traditions. In the preface to the Spanish edition, Teodoro Petkoff, an opposition figure, disdains Chávez's ideological immaturity, his "left-wing infantilism." Yet Chávez is a master of the media show, his insulting diatribes a shrewd synthesis of Fox News and The Jerry Springer Show. Although Marcano and Barrera stop short of predictions, readers of this vivid, deeply disturbing portrait will fear for Venezuela's future.
Chávez has driven a wedge between the international left, which remains enchanted with his underclass identity and anti-imperialist posture, and liberals (including moderate social democrats), who have become increasingly critical of his authoritarian tendencies. Indicative of this latter perspective, the International Crisis Group's "background report" persuasively details the caudillo's purposeful undermining of democratic institutions and warns of the "considerable risks" of violent internal conflict if Chávez continues to polarize Venezuelan society.
Focusing on Chávez's impact on hemispheric affairs, Michael Shifter, of the prestigious Inter-American Dialogue, also sounds the alarm and belittles the Bush administration's passivity: "However tempting it may be for the United States government to ignore [Chávez], it has tried that course with little to show for it." With a rapid-fire series of innovative, well-financed initiatives, the hyperactive Chávez is challenging a U.S. regional agenda based on democratic politics and market economics. Amid this turmoil, Shifter sees opportunity -- for the United States to compete with Chávez by engaging Latin America to promote a reinvigorated free-trade agenda, sustainable social welfare, and more accountable governance. The stakes, Shifter advises, are high.