Kenneth Maxwell is Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Inter-American Studies and Director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He reviews books on the western hemisphere for Foreign Affairs.
Richard Gott has always been susceptible, he admits, to "the charms of Latin America's strongmen." This time he has fallen for comandante Hugo Chávez, the former army lieutenant colonel and two-time coup leader who was inaugurated as Venezuela's president in February 1999 with overwhelming public support. Chávez, as Gott sees him, is a radical revolutionary who will provide the "antibodies" to combat "globalization ... the disease of the new millennium."
This first major assessment of the new regime in Caracas is classic Gott: large chunks of on-the-spot reportage and selective history spiced with generous dollops of old-left rhetoric, folded into a tasty literary sandwich. His is a Manichean world where "the evil empire" is based in Washington, D.C. Gott's hero is Chávez, who follows in the tradition of the great Latin American radical nationalists: Juan Perón of Argentina, Juan Velasco of Peru, Omar Torríjos of Panama -- and, of course, the ever-resilient Fidel Castro.
Gott himself has been a fixture for over 30 years among the foreign interpreters of Latin America. A British journalist who worked at the University of Chile in the 1960s, he authored a major work on the region's guerrilla movements before following Che Guevara's disastrous Bolivian campaign. More recently, he completed a fine elegy for the hinterland of South America where the Jesuits once ruled. He was also for a time the literary editor at The Guardian in London until he had to resign following allegations that he had been too cozy with Soviet agents.
Gott is always an interesting, well-informed, and engaging writer. Washington would be wise to pay attention to this account, since Chávez's radical nationalism (so fondly described by Gott) is presumably raising eyebrows in Foggy Bottom and Langley. Hence the detailed exegesis of the comandante's antecedents, philosophy, and friendships takes on great importance, even if Gott himself is surprised that "the Americans have been unusually quiet about Chávez."
Chávez, according to Gott, is a pragmatic utopian, and
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