A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I was born on the 28th of July, 1954. My mother was expecting to have a girl, and as a good Christian and Catholic, she called her first boy Adán [Adam], and I was supposed to be Eva, in order to make Paradise. So I was the second child and, as I couldn’t be Eva, they gave me my father’s name; and my second name, Rafael, comes from my maternal grandfather, Rafael Infante. It was my mother who finally named me—it’s always like that, in the end.
– p. 74, Family Memories. All translations are my own.
The death of Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, and his promotion in death to supreme leader and commander emeritus of the Bolivarian revolution, has left what I can only describe as a great big hole in world politics. His is a noticeable absence, because—until ill health started to draw him away—he was so very much there: a vivid, mutable, outspoken presence. I feel it myself, although I do not live in Venezuela and have no right to a stake in its politics. But Chávez, like his friend and comrade Lula (who called him, in rather a wonderful turn of phrase, “eighty percent heart and twenty percent brain“), was an intrinsic part of my cultural and political world. Every time I opened up BBC Mundo I would ask myself: what has that man done now? And there would usually be something, whether hopeful, or infuriating, or satisfying, or contrary, or commonsensical, or disturbing. And it would always matter.
It might seem strange, to mark the passing of a man who was nothing if not full of surprises by reviewing a book published in 2005. But there is plenty of material out there for any reader who wants a biographical sketch (incidentally, this photo narrative on MSN UK is surprisingly good, and compares favourably to the more histrionic stuff filling the broadsheets); and if what you’re after is a response to the man’s death, well, take your pick. There’s a wealth of it out there from every political angle, from Tariq Ali and Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, Lula and Owen Jones, to Michael White, Rory Carroll, Daniel Hannan, and this characteristic Economist editorial. And that’s just the UK press (well, mostly). What Aleida Guevara’s book brings to the party, despite its age, is a window into Chávez’s personality, his self-representation in a comparatively relaxed setting. It is the equivalent of a snapshot taken by a friend.
The title—Chávez: un hombre que anda por ahí—literally means “a man who walks around,” although the English translation is entitled Chávez, Venezuela and the New Latin America. That doesn’t quite communicate the nature of the book or its narrative, which is definitely more of a wander than the English title might suggest. The book incorporates two interviews conducted by Guevara in Caracas in 2004: the first under the self-explanatory title of Venezuela Today, the second—Reflections—incorporating Chávez’s thoughts about his family, Fidel Castro, the war in Iraq, ALBA, and the referendum of August 2004. It also includes a transcript of Guevara’s appearance on Chávez’s weekly TV show, Aló Presidente, and an interview with then Defence Minister Jorge García Carneiro about the failed coup of 2002, which removed Chávez from office for two days, and about the role of the military in Venezuelan political life. Guevara’s contributions to the dialogue are largely edited out, but she evidently does not ask her subject sticky questions—you’d want the BBC Hardtalk interview for that—nor try to direct the flow of his responses, which seem to be transcribed pretty much directly, with the minimum of editorial tidying-up. This means that the reader gets a real taste of Chávez’s conversational style, as here, when he describes his encounter with a drunk following his famous first visit to Cuba in 1994 (I’ve deliberately kept the translation as close as I can):
Remember that our people had been bombarded with Fidel and Chávez, the embrace and I don’t know what else. I get out of the car, and a drunk’s coming up the middle of the road with a bottle in his hand, zig-zagging, but drunk, knee-walking drunk as we say here, and I go right past him, close as this—I was going to turn round and cross the street—but he was walking straight towards me with his bottle—well, he wasn’t walking straight at all—and then he says, “You look like Chávez,” he was a young man, and I say “I am Chávez, how are you?” and I shake his hand, he babbles two or three things and walks on, and I walk on too, but in the other direction, and suddenly I hear from behind me: “Chávez!” And I turn round, I’ll never forget the look on his face. “Chávez, viva Fidel!” (pp 97-98)
What these interviews offer is a chance to know a little more of the things that made up the man: his preoccupations and convictions, his attachments, his references, and the military culture and education that were fundamental not only to his early political experience and radicalisation, but to his mature leadership. This is no substitute for informed, sustained reading. But it is something that even the best reporting cannot provide. To anyone who wants to understand Chávez as he was, with all the complexity that entails, it is invaluable.
Ocean Sur (Spanish), 150 pp., ISBN: 978-1920888220 / Ocean Press (English), 143 pp., ISBN: 978-1920888008