Book Review/The New York Times
As conflict in Venezuela intensifies and a recently elected constituent assembly prepares to rewrite the country’s constitution, here are three books that offer essential background and one vision for a way forward.
By Marie Arana
603 pp. Simon & Schuster. (2013)
To understand the landscape of Venezuelan politics, one must first understand the role of Simón Bolívar, who was known in the United States as the George Washington of South America for liberating Venezuela and much of the continent in the 1800s. Though progressive in many regards — for instance, he called for the abolition of slavery in 1816 — his vision was not of a democratic state. Instead, he insisted that the racial diversity in the region necessitated an “infinitely firm hand,” which in his view meant uniting the newly independent countries into one grand Latin American federation and implementing a presidency-for-life system, naming himself the “Liberator and Dictator.” These ideas lost him the support of the United States and inspired an assassination attempt by a group of his own associates. Bolívar’s political and military exploits are recounted in this entertaining volume.
Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela
By Rory Carroll
302 pp. The Penguin Press. (2013)
Hugo Chávez, who ruled Venezuela for 14 years, from 1999 to 2013, won over the masses by promising what Rory Carroll describes as a “Bolivarian revolution, a self-styled radical effort to transform state and society into a vision worthy of Bolívar, a beacon of democracy, socialism and enlightenment.” At first, he seemed successful; he used the country’s wealth from oil revenue to fund programs that advanced social causes. But after a few years, Chávez became frustrated with the slow pace of democracy, and opted for more expedient but corrupt means. He intimidated government ministers and provided irresponsible, unsustainable handouts to Venezuela’s poor. In this posthumous biography, Carroll, who covered Venezuela for The Guardian for six years, explains why Chávez kept getting re-elected, arguing that the self-proclaimed savior of Venezuela was a master “illusionist” who manipulated the country’s citizens and news media to dismantle its democracy and create “a laboratory of power and charisma that veered between hope, dread and farce.”
How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela
By Raúl Gallegos
256 pp. Potomac Books. (2016)
The farce has not held up since Chávez’s death in 2013. As a country that makes most of its money from oil, Venezuela is highly susceptible to the ups and downs of that market. In this book, Raúl Gallegos, a former Caracas-based correspondent, explains how mismanagement of this revenue by the government over the last century has caused the current crisis. When oil prices went down, it became clear that the country did not have the money or manufacturing infrastructure to provide basic necessities; goods such as milk, sugar and toilet paper started to disappear from the shelves. Gallegos provides crucial background for the country’s present situation, and also offers a solution for fixing the country’s economy and helping it re-enter the global energy industry.