on November 14, 2007
Considering what the mainstream media has to say about Hugo Chavez whenever the opportunity arises (and that is very frequently, considering how quickly changes are taking place in Venezuela) this book is, indeed, a must read. No matter what your opinion of Chavez is, Bart Jones presents a fine journalist's account of the modern history of Venezuela, it's leaders, and the life of its current president.
What also makes the book very important is the fact that it's a "good read". Unfortunately, too many times, books that are historically or politicly valuable are so poorly written. In this case, in addition to having done his homework about his subject Mister Jones presents his information with the skills of a disciplined writer.
on November 23, 2007
I entirely empathize with the previous reviewer who stated: "I lost sleep two nights running because I just couldn't put the book down." This book reads like a great Latin American novel, and there are chapters that rank with the best freelance journalism I have ever read. Jones is not blind to Chavez's flaws and "undiplomatic" manner. But he makes clear how Chavez, alone among Venezuelan politicians of the post-independence era, has captured the imagination of the poor and made them a priority in his economic and social policies. The accounts of Chavez's original failed coup, and the coup attempt and strikes against him after he took power, are absolutely palpitating. And there were points where I had tears in my eyes reading Chavez's own comments on moments when he thought all was lost, yet emerged triumphant with the majority of Venezuelans at his side. Some may blanch at Jones's derisory comments about the role of Venezuelan elites in all this. I applaud him wholeheartedly for showing just how callow, narcissistic, and anti-democratic are most of the forces ranged against this most complex and fascinating of Latin American leaders.
on April 9, 2013
The Hugo Chavez Story is clearly written, historically accurate, often exciting, at times funny. Hugo fought against corruption of the elite and brought education, healthcare and housing to the poor. Reading it brought Venezuela, and Hugo to life.
on October 5, 2007
¡Hugo!: The Definitive Chavez Biography
Review by Chuck Kaufman
[¡Hugo!: The Hugo Chavez Story From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution, by Bart Jones Hardback, 570pgs, Steerforth Press, Sept. 2007, $30]
I am not a reader of biographies and I am not a fan of learning history by studying the lives of "great men." Having said that, I believe that ¡Hugo!: The Hugo Chavez Story From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution by Bart Jones is one of the most important books of 2007 and a must read for anyone who wants a fair and balanced account of the great changes sweeping Venezuela and the historical roots that shaped the man, Hugo Chavez, and the Bolivarian process that is transforming the country.
Liberals and progressives in the United States have been influenced by the relentless Bush administration and corporate media campaign to depict Chavez as an autocrat who is a threat to democracy, press freedom, and human rights norms. Newsday reporter and author of ¡Hugo!, Bart Jones, has contributed a fast-paced, thoroughly researched and balanced book that allows the reader to make her own judgments.
Jones lived eight years in Venezuela arriving in 1992 just as Chavez and mid-level military officers were launching a failed coup against Carlos Andres Perez which landed Chavez in prison for two years. Jones lived in a poverty stricken Caracas barrio as a Maryknoll lay worker for the first year and a half and then landed a job as Associated Press correspondent through 2000. In the barrio he lived across the street from a mud hut just like the one where Chavez was born in his grandmother's hut. As an AP reporter Jones lived in the exclusive Altamira neighborhood, a bastion of the rich opposition to Chavez. He therefore has witnessed firsthand the two extremes of Venezuelan society.
Jones was originally interested in writing a book about the 2002 failed coup against Chavez, but his publisher, Steerforth Press, convinced him to write the definitive biography to date of the man who is a hero to millions and a villain to a different set of millions, including his nemesis George W. Bush.
Jones describes the story he documented as "straight out of Hollywood." Indeed, I lost sleep two nights running because I just couldn't put the book down. I also was so engrossed in the two chapters about the 2002 coup that I got on the Washington, DC metro heading in the wrong direction and was in the suburbs before I became conscious of my surroundings. Despite the novel-like action pace of the book, it is meticulously researched with 55 pages of references and an extensive index. It is not a book of fiction; it is reality mirroring a bestselling action novel.
One of the best features of the book is the various side trips Jones takes in the early chapters into Venezuelan history and key events in the life of Simon Bolivar and other leaders who are largely unknown in the United States but who are heroes in Venezuela and much of Latin America. These mini history lessons greatly enhance the reader's understanding of the roots of the "Bolivarian revolution" and how history shaped Hugo Chavez, the majority poor who adore him, and the minority elites who view him as an uncouth "monkey" whose dark skin and boisterous manner are as much a cause of their revulsion as his policies.
As an organizer in the US Venezuela Solidarity Network, which is working to build opposition to US intervention in Venezuela and solidarity support for the poor majority which, for the first time in Venezuelan history, feel like they have a stake and a role in determining their own fate, I was especially interested in the role of other Venezuelan leaders, both Chavistas and the opposition, and those who have moved back and forth between support and opposition.
I met many of them in October 2006 when I led a delegation to Venezuela to investigate how the US government was attempting to influence the December presidential election through spending at least $26 million of US taxpayer money in grants from the so-called National Endowment for Democracy and the US Agency for International Development. The grants are overseen by a US embassy-based office tellingly named the Office of Transition Initiatives. ¡Hugo! includes information about these "democracy" interventions as well.
If our only source of information is the Bush administration and corporate media, people could be forgiven for believing that Venezuela is a country inhabited by a single person - Hugo Chavez -- and that he is the source of every problem. It has long been a successful strategy for the US government and media to personify targeted countries leaders as the sole problem standing between good relations between the two countries.
Jones points out that Chavez' overheated rhetoric often plays into the hands of those who would vilify him. Calling Bush the "devil" and talking about the lingering smell of sulfur during a UN speech enraged even some liberals in the US although the fact that he received the most sustained applause of any world leader by the assembled UN diplomats usually goes unremarked.
But these incidents and misinformation about the decision to not renew the expired broadcast license of RCTV, false speculation that proposed constitutional amendments would make Chavez "president for life," and other charges that he is "hollowing out democratic institutions," have taken a toll on support among US progressives and liberals. ¡Hugo! details opposition charges, letting the opposition spokespeople damn themselves with the absurdity of their claims against a backdrop of a system that Venezuelans, in a poll of Latin Americans about the level of democracy in their respective countries, believe is the most democratic in Latin America.
I am an opponent of US government and corporate domination of Latin America and the world. Bart Jones is an ethical reporter who may come off as pro-Chavez because he is imposing objectivity in an area where the reporting has been so biased as to distort reality to the breaking point. Jones believes that both the opposition and the supporters of the Bolivarian "process," as supporters have come to call it, have legitimate points that deserve to be discussed. One of his goals was to make that possible by writing a book which upholds the best standards of unbiased reporting. In the process he writes a "page-turner" book that will captivate and educate the reader. This book belongs on the New York Times bestseller list and in the hands of every intellectually curious US adult who questions the right of the United States to rule the world.
[Chuck Kaufman is National Co-Coordinator of the Nicaragua Network where he has worked for 20 years. He is Interim Coordinator of the new Venezuela Solidarity Network. He can be reached at Chuck@afgj.org]
on November 29, 2013
This guy really did his homework. So well, in fact, that I reference him repeatedly in a book I wrote about living in the southern Venezuelan jungle. As Caudillos go, Chavez was one of the few who left a permanent (if sadly sick) mark on this nation of irrepressibly good-natured and long-suffering people.
on May 29, 2012
As time flies, Jones' book becomes more dated, but it remains the most comprehensive take on Chavez' early years in power. There's little to add beyond the other fine reviews on this page, except that I found it a page-turner that sufficiently answered most of the nitty-grittys on the Comandante and his Bolivarian Movement.
Critics of his regime have pointed aplenty to his duplicity and failings (subsidy of FARC, street crime) but few have addressed the more positive aspects, largely because the corporate media does not publicize them and they remain unknown to North Americans. This includes channelling oil wealth into low-interest loans to small farmers and in urban farming, through the Mission Agro-Venezuela program of food sovereignty; and communal councils, grass-roots organizations coordinating cooperatives and labor to bypass the entrenched private sector, by taking over abandoned factories and establishing communal markets. Although these seem like "soviets," manipulated from on high, opposition critics are allowed membership in these coumcils and are not repressed for preaching or practicing differently than the state.
Corruption remains a problem, yet it was just as perverse - if not worse - in the unfettered neo-liberal reign of his predecessor. Perhaps the arrest of 30 bankers and nationalization of six banks will address the problem; if so, it can be a precedent we can learn from in the US.
The most impressive revelation in this book, however, is the undisputable attempt by the opposition to assassinate him: in secret, at night, like an animal. Whenever you see the well-heeled outrage of his adversaries on Fox or CNN screaming that Chavez is the New Castro, remember that you're looking at people who tried to kill him, failed, and are still alive and free to scream some more: benefits they were willing to deny him, and certain proof he is not the Fidelista tyrant these frustrated wanna-be aristocrats will have you believe.
On the Chavista book tree, this remains the best of the bunch for now.
on October 11, 2014
One of the best non-fiction offerings I have ever read! I don't deny that I was already a fan of Hugo Chavez before reading this biography, but my admiration for his courage, determination, and genuine caring for Venezuela's poor increased 10-fold after finishing it. Highly recommended!!!
on March 6, 2009
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is a strange icon for a democratic left to admire; He is a former soldier who has led a military coup against his country's democratically elected government, who only acknowledged the legitimacy of Venezuela's democracy once he reckoned he had a good chance of winning. He is a consummate player of hypocritical realist foreign policy that would make Henry Kissinger proud - associate yourself with the very worse of the world's leaders (Saddam Hussein, Mahmud Ahmadinejad), and than still claim the moral high ground over your enemies. He has debased the language of international relations, and his internal policies are at the very least controversial.
But Bart Jones, author of ¡Hugo!: The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution, is a Chavez apologist, although it would be unfair to call him a Chavista (the term for Chavez's supporters). He employs numerous strategies to put Chavez in a sympathetic light. The chapter about the 2002 coup attempt against his government is titled simply "The Coup", but Chavez's own coup attempt was "The Rebellion of the Angels", Both Chavez and his opponents routinely demonize each other, and Chavez gave as good as he got, but that did not stop him from complaining about his "vilification" and Jones echoes these complaints.
The most potent weapon in Jones's armory, though, is George W. Bush. The readership of "Hugo" is likely fiercely opposed to the 43rd American President, and Jones takes advantage of the fact, positioning Chavez as a victim and an opponent of Bush, who should get the reader's sympathies by default. Jones fiercely complains about the Bush administration's funding of the Venezuelan opposition, but dedicates only a single paragraph to Chavez's own funding of like minded candidates in other Latin American countries. He reports on crazed anti Chavez suggestion by obscure members of the American religious right. Jones's claims that "Chavez was doing his best to keep his revolution peaceful in the fact of relentless US hostility" borders on paranoia (p. 436).
One does not have to succumb to the false choice offered by Jones - Chavez is in opposition to Western values, not merely to George w. Bush. Jones attempt to blame the antagonism of the Bush administration for Chavez's cozy relationship with "the most openly anti-US regimes on the planet" (p.445). But Chavez's first visit to Saddam Hussein, schmoozing the Iraqi dictator and undermining the US's long term strategy of isolating him, took place in 2000, before Bush's election. Nor is opposition to Chavez limited to the United States: King Juan Carlos famously blasted at Chavez, saying "why won't you shut up!" Chavez's response: he alleged that the Spanish King's was complicit in the coup attempt against him.
Jones offers a sympathetic, and mostly uncritical, portrayal of Chavez's various social missions, his attempts to increase literacy and social services in Venezuela. One cannot read Jones' description and fail to be impressed. It seems that Venezuela's underclass is considerably better off because of Chavez's action. But are they genuinely effective, and can they survive the deflation of oil prices? Jones's account is not analytical enough to persuade, and there are harsh criticism of the durability of the Chavez system available (see Michael Reid's Forgotten Continent: The Battle for Latin America's Soul). Jones also claims that Chavez's efforts of shoring up OPEC are behind the increase of oil prices, but that is hard to believe. Nonetheless, even a modest and temporary increase in oil prices that might be caused by the very public actions of the cartel may make the efforts of reviving OPEC worthwhile.
Jones underplays the effect of Venezuela's limits on the press, and sees them as a counter reaction to the media's hostility to Chavez. Nixon-esque outbursts against the partiality of the press are not an appealing quality in any politician, and certainly the response of Chavez should have been to promote his own media, not to try to silence opponents. In fact, Chavez has done both.
What is Chavez's end game? Jones repeatedly asserts that Chavez is not after a Castro-like revolution in Venezuela. He claims that Chavez knows the Communist models are flawed. Yet Jones never quotes Chavez to that effect. All we get is anti-Capitalist rhetoric. Given El Presidento's admiration for Castro, his populist and Maoist instincts, and his opportunistic support of democracy, Jones' assurances are difficult to take at face value. Currently, Chavez lacks the power to shape Venezuela in his image - opposition to him is well entrenched. But the regime is growing more radical as it solidifies its power. Nationalization of land and of Industries, press crackdowns and authoritarianism has become more pronounced. A Nationalization stick can be wielded to encourage owners to sell their property "willingly", and one suspects that some of the sales Jones's laud were so induced. Chavez also continues in his quest to become President for life - after a resounding defeat in his quest to remove the limits of consecutive terms as president, Chavez simply brought forward another plebiscite, and got what he wanted.
Bart Jones has produced a mostly well written and generally informative account of the Venezuelan leader. The parts about Chavez's pre-presidential career were somewhat overlong, and the attempts of narrating the various coups as action pieces fail spectacularly, yet for the most part the book is both entertaining and enlightening. I have criticized Jones's pro Chavez bias throughout the review, and so in fairness I should point out that the Afterword to the British edition is less enthusiastic and more balanced. All in all, Jones's book is worth reading for everyone interested in the unquestionably remarkable transformation of Chavez's Venezuela.
on September 3, 2008
Bart Jones lived and worked in Venezuela for eight years and had unprecedented access to its president, Hugo Chavez.
Latin America's income per head grew by 82% between 1960 and 1980, before the IMF policies, but only by 10% between 1980 and 2005 under IMF policies. In 1989, the previous president, Carlos Perez, ordered the army into Caracas, killing more than a thousand people, in food riots triggered by price rises ordered by the IMF.
Chavez won the presidency in 1998 with 56% of the votes. Jones writes, "He was elected in free and fair elections, and won three more referenda to write and approve a new constitution. The jails held no political prisoners. No opposition parties were outlawed. No newspapers, television networks, or radio stations were censored, even though the majority were virulently opposed to Chavez. ... No media outlets were closed or reporters jailed." Even US Ambassador John Maisto said of Chavez's rule, "no one can question its democratic legitimacy."
However, the US state has been ruthlessly hostile to Chavez, which only shows that the US state's primary commitment is to capitalism, not to democracy. The US government knew in advance and approved the April 2002 coup against his government. The US Agency for International Development had given opposition groups, including the coup plotters, $26 million.
Metropolitan Police and snipers fired on both pro- and anti-Chavez marchers. The coup plotters taped, in advance, a statement that marchers had been killed, accusing Chavez. Coup leader Pedro Carmona shut down the Congress and the Supreme Court, tore up the constitution and sacked every elected official from the attorney-general to state governors to local mayors. Carmona's first visitor was US ambassador Charles Shapiro.
Chavez won the 2004 recall referendum with 59% of the votes and in 2006 he won a new six-year term with 63% of the votes. He is popular because his policies genuinely benefit the majority of the people. His government has cut poverty from 43% to 33%. The Mision Milagro flies patients to Cuba for free eye surgery. Venezuela's health spending per head rose by 74% between 1999 and 2005. Before land reform, 2% of the population owned 60% of the land and Venezuela imported 70% of its food. By 2007 the government had distributed nine million acres of idle land to 130,000 families.
Chavez's government continues to work for the people of Venezuela, ensuring their right to control their country's resources. On 1 May 2007, the government took majority control over oil projects from ExxonMobil, Chevron, Conoco and Total.
on October 6, 2009
This is an engaging and easy-to-read biography of Chavez. I highly recommend it for people who want to understand Chavez's background and his personal struggles. It vividly captures the hopes and dreams that Hugo embodies for the Venezuelan poor and makes Hugo understandable for a US audience.
However, it is very short on analysis and doesn't pretend to be an academic book. It doesn't analyze in any detail the policies which the Boliviarian Revolution is enacting. You won't understand how Hugo is remaking Venezuelan politics except in very general terms. What is actually happening on the ground is not explained nor analyzed. So don't buy this book if you are seeking to understand Chavez's agenda and how it is different from other leftist movements in Latin America. The role of the US and analysis of the coup against Chavez and the subsequent strike of the oil workers is lacking. Jones is a master at telling the personal story of Hugo, but this book falls short if you want deeper analysis or more context. Nonetheless, these things clearly aren't Jones' goals in writing the book, and other authors are already doing a good job in those respects. Without a doubt this book is a page-turner and you will definitely enjoy reading it.