Hugo Chavez was one of the most important public figures of the last twenty years. From the moment of the failed 1992 coup he helped foment until his death from cancer in 2013, his presence was felt around the world. Politicians, media outlets and capitalist power mongers despised his popularity and what they feared it meant for their future. Many of those around the world who are not among the powerful or working for their public relations machinery saw him as a hero and leader in the struggle against those very powers that repress the common people’s desire for a decent life and a more just world.
Chavez grew to understand this role and seemed to relish it the bigger he became. People cheered when he equated George W. Bush with the Devil at the United Nations and North Americans noted when he offered gasoline to the citizens of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration’s intentional neglect of those victims. His popularity in his home land of Venezuela exists still and is a good part of the reason his successor Nicolás Maduro has been able to hold on to his office despite severe and violent pressures from the wealthy right wingers of Venezuela and their foreign allies. That part of Venezuela’s history continues to be written as I write.
For the past few years Pluto Press has been publishing a series of biographies of selected revolutionaries. The series is called “Revolutionary Lives” and has included the life histories of French Jacobin Jean Paul Marat, Chilean socialist Salvador Allende, and socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, to name three. The books are short, usually less than two hundred pages, and provide a leftist introduction to the subject and their place in history. One of the most recent biographies in the series is that of Hugo Chavez. Titled Hugo Chavez: Socialist for the Twenty-First Century, and written by Mike Gonzalez of the University of Glasgow, this brief work does a very competent job of presenting Chavez’s political biography.
Gonzalez describes Chavez’s growing political awareness during his early years in the Venezuelan military while simultaneously giving the reader a general description of the historical class and ethnic divisions found in Venezuela. Although Chavez studied Marx and other leftist writers, he kept the writings of Latin America’s liberator Simon Bolivar closest to his heart. In due time, it would be Bolivar’s name that would become the descriptor of the government Chavez would lead—the Bolivarian Republic.
Since the two are inseparable, this text is also the history of the new Venezuela and the movements that created it. Other books cover the popular and grassroots elements of the movement better (see George Cicciarello-Maher’s We Created Chavez for a detailed and well-written study), Gonzalez remains focused on Chavez’s role. In doing so, he introduces the difficulties faced by a movement so identified with one man and the possibilities for its future. Overall, Gonzalez refrains from injecting too much of his personal opinion of Chavez and Chavismo, although it is clear he believes it has so far fallen short of some of its stated goals. Although his argument is not very well made–perhaps because of the unknown nature of the future–Gonzalez seems to believe the movement Chavez is identified with needs to relocate itself back into the social movements and people’s organizations that originally identified with him and ensured his popularity. In the chapter called “The Contradictions of Twenty-first Century Socialism,” Gonzalez takes on this subject, briefly discussing the creation of the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSuV) and blaming its tendency towards patronage and corruption for the relative failure of Venezuelan socialism. There is little acknowledgement of the role played by US intelligence agencies or US capital and its NGOs in this discussion even when Gonzalez describes the 2002 coup. This seems to me a bit deceptive, given the history of the US and its private sponsors in Latin America.
Gonzalez intention in this book seems to be the presentation of an introductory political biography of Hugo Chavez. He succeeds in that task, providing the readers with the personal details of Chavez’s military and political life. In the telling Gonzalez provides enough political and historical context of Venezuela to create a short but complete picture of the man, the nation and the people he loved. Hugo Chavez: Socialist for the Twenty-first Century is a welcome addition to the growing bibliography examining the revolutionary upsurge in Latin America. If your library has room for only one book about Hugo Chavez, this is among the best of the lot.