Chávez’s Magical Realism

How the Comandante may get the last laugh, even from the grave.

For months, the enemies of Hugo Chávez have hardly even tried to conceal their delight at his apparent end. With the Venezuelan president lying uncharacteristically silent on what may be his deathbed, the goal that has obsessed but eluded them for fifteen years seems within reach—thanks, ultimately, not to elite machinations or imperial meddling, but to simple mortality. The long chavista nightmare, as they see it, is finally over.

Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela

by Rory Carroll
Penguin Press HC, 320 pp.

But if Chávez’s past teaches us anything, it is that opponents should think twice before celebrating his defeat. His greatest successes have always come just as his antagonists are preparing to declare victory. In the early 1990s, when he was an obscure lieutenant colonel, his disastrously inept attempt to overthrow the government won him national fame and launched his political career. A decade later, a short-lived coup cheered on by the Bush administration secured his place as the world’s premier anti-imperial hero and revolutionary standard-bearer. When the Venezuelan opposition was on the verge of deposing him in a referendum, oil prices shot up, and he poured the huge profits into popular social programs and cemented his control. If the pattern holds, Chávez will somehow get the last laugh after all, even from the grave.

Chávez has attributed these repeated resurrections to divine favor and good luck. The real explanation may have more to do with sheer political skill—with his “cunning, foresight, and subtlety,” as Rory Carroll puts it in Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, his sharply observed portrait of Chávez in power. Carroll, a correspondent for the Guardian, watches Chávez at work—powerfully and genuinely human in moments, clownishly charismatic in others, diabolically manipulative when necessary—and admits that “the effect [is] mesmerizing.” Yet for Carroll, this appreciation only heightens the tragedy of what Chávez’s “Bolivarian revolution” has wrought: “Here was a sublimely gifted politician with empathy for the poor and the power of Croesus—and the result, fiasco.”

In a decade and a half as Venezuela’s president (and almost as long as a global figure, notorious or valiant according to taste), Chávez has attracted plenty of chroniclers. Most of their chronicles, however, have been warped by adulation or animosity. Defenders tend to dismiss criticism as the griping of a vanquished predatory elite; detractors let their hostility blind them to Chávez’s undeniable appeal. Carroll’s virtue as a chronicler is that he is often charmed but never seduced.

Gabriel Garcia Márquez once called Chávez “a natural storyteller,” with “a touch of the supernatural,” a master of magical realism in his own right. Carroll agrees, watching, fascinated, as the Comandante spins his myths. Despite what must have been strenuous effort and repeated requests, Carroll never gets close to the man himself. Instead, he experiences Chávez the way most Venezuelans do: on TV. “He was on television,” Carroll writes, “almost every day for hours at a time, invariably live, with no script or teleprompter, mulling, musing, deciding, ordering.” Even with their preposterous frequency and length, these performances are, to Carroll, rarely dull: “Sublime, unexpected moments lit up the screen and showed why the Comandante remained popular even after a decade in power.”

Sometimes, it is a moment like one televised encounter with a barely literate old woman, whose voice quavers as she shows off the communal garden she cultivates (with help from Cuban advisers sent by Fidel Castro to support “twenty-first-century socialism”). As a smiling Chávez reassures her, it is easy to scoff at the populist pandering, or to point out the illogic of directing resources into unproductive agricultural communes. And yet: “Laura seemed fit to explode with happiness…. A long, humble life of scratching subsistence from baked earth, a life anonymous like those of her ancestors, had just been sprinkled with magic.” Other times it is Chávez’s earthy monologues, which repulse elite society as much as they endear him to the street. He discusses bowel problems on camera (“I was sweating so bad”). On Valentine’s Day he says his wife “is gonna get hers,” and on another occasion he explains that he would never sleep with Condoleezza Rice, not even for the sake of his beloved homeland. He gleefully labels adversaries squealing pigs, rancid oligarchs, bandits, vampires, and perverts—all of them escualidos, squalid ones, his catchall term for hated elites.

Entrancing, astute, comical as these performances may be, Chávez’s populist touch would hardly be enough if he didn’t also have the enviable luck of presiding over the country with the world’s largest oil reserves at a time of skyrocketing energy prices. Political scientists Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold have documented just how closely Chávez’s popularity has tracked with growth in oil-fueled public spending. Still, as Carroll points out, many of Chávez’s predecessors in the Venezuelan political elite have had similarly enviable luck and haven’t always used it to the same advantage. “When he accused [them] of looting the nation’s oil wealth,” Carroll writes, “he was essentially correct.” Chávez hasn’t shown the foresight to direct the windfall toward building a diversified modern economy—oil now accounts for 96 percent of Venezuela’s exports, up from an already-dismaying 80 percent—but the patronage of the petro-state has at least helped allay extreme poverty. The revolution’s social “missions,” which provide, among other things, health care and subsidized food to slum dwellers, are popular enough that Chávez’s savvier opponents have promised to maintain and even expand them.

Yet one of the many dark ironies of twenty-first-century socialism is that while extreme poverty has fallen, inequality—Venezuela’s longtime national scourge, and a large part of the explanation for why a Chávez could arise in the first place—has persisted, in sometimes surreal forms. Under twenty-first-century socialism, a new class of Bolivarian oligarchs—”Boligarchs”—has traded on revolutionary credentials to supplant the escualidos exiled to Miami. They have given Venezuela not only one of the highest per capita rates of whiskey consumption in the world, but also, as cocaine imports have increased more than 400 percent percent, newfound distinction as a top transport route for South American smugglers. Although Chávez has a reputation for personal scrupulousness, rampant corruption among those around him seems to suit him just fine. “He gets intelligence reports detailing who is stealing what,” one fallen sycophant tells Carroll. “That way if someone steps out of line, bang, he has them.”

The toll of this “parasitic ecosystem” on the rest of Venezuela has become harder and harder to ignore, for everyone except perhaps Chávez himself. In reporting around the country, Carroll documents this toll in grim detail. Infrastructure is crumbling, nationalized companies are imploding, inflation is surging, and the state oil company has become “a bloated hydra so overloaded with social and political tasks it neglect[s] its core business of drilling and refining.” The capricious and curiously haphazard tyranny of the revolutionary state, blessed by a twice-rewritten constitution, has gutted democratic institutions and protections. “Venezuela’s social contract,” Carroll writes, has “shredded under Chávez.” That shredding is most vividly and violently demonstrated by rising crime, the issue that Venezuelans say most worries them today. The increase in assaults and murders and kidnappings under Chávez has made, Carroll notes, “Venezuela more dangerous than Iraq, and Caracas one of the deadliest cities on earth.”

Much of this dysfunction is the sad but predictable fate of a country living under the resource curse. In that sense, Chávez is as much a symptom as a cause of what ails his country. After all, it was a Venezuelan who first called oil “the devil’s excrement,” long before anyone knew the Comandante’s name. Yet in the end, what remains extraordinary about Chávez is how little touched he has been by the atrophy spreading beneath him, how he has hovered above it all and retained the faith of so many. By 2011, some of his supporters had even taken to shouting, “Long live Chávez, down with the government.”

In the past, Chávez has likened himself to Christ, “a great rebel … an anti-imperialist,” and attacked opponents with cries of “Burn the Judas!” As his cancer has progressed and his voice gone silent, that comparison has become more frequent and direct. One sign at a recent rally: “Chávez Christ I love you.” When he is dead, that faith will keep Chávez looming above Venezuelan politics—one final victory over his enemies.

The apostles have already started scrambling to claim and define his legacy. In December, Chávez anointed Nicolas Maduro, a union leader turned foreign minister, as his successor. But Maduro represents only one of many factions and interests: Castroite socialists, military men, street militia chiefs, Boligarchs who have grown fat and prosperous on the fruits of twenty-first-century socialism. When Chávez is gone, the knives will come out as they fight to protect the spoils and take up the mantle of the revolution, knowing well that for years, the fundamental question of Venezuelan politics will be, What would Chávez have done? He will be hailed as the model of every policy. He will remain the touchstone for ambitious upstarts eager to flaunt their opposition to the establishment or the United States. His name, his revolution, will be invoked to justify an expanding range of ideologies. Eventually, perhaps decades from now, chavismo will become so elastic a concept as to be meaningless. Only then will Hugo Chávez be truly defeated.

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Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, a research fellow in international relations at New York University, served on the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff in the Obama administration. His book about George Marshall will be published by W. W. Norton in 2018.