The Washington Post
Hugo!: The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolutionby Bart Jones
Ruling elites in Venezuela, the United States and Europe, and even Hugo Chávez himself though for different reasons, have been eager to have the world view him as the heir to Fidel Castro. But the truth about this increasingly influential world leader is more complex, and more interesting.. The Chávez that emerges from Bart Jones’ carefully researched and documented biography is neither a plaster saint nor a revolutionary tyrant. He has an undeniably autocratic streak, and yet has been freely and fairly re-elected to his nations presidency three times with astonishing margins of victory. He is a master politician and an inspired improviser, a Bolivarian nationalist and an unashamed socialist. His policies have brought him into conflict with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and major oil companies. They have also provided a model for new governments and social movements in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina. When in September 2006 he declared at the United Nations that ‘the devil came here yesterday … the President of the United States’, it was clear that he was taking on challenging the most powerful nation on earth, in conscious imitation of the Liberator, Simon Bolivar.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Washington Post
While opinions of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez vary tremendously on a global scale, there are few defenses of him available in the United States. This biography by Bart Jones, a former AP correspondent from Venezuela, attempts to level the ground. Without taking a political stance, Jones provides a nuanced account of the Venezuelan leader's life, creating a portrait that is, if not sympathetic, certainly more balanced than previous ones. For example, when Chávez characterized President Bush as the devil at the U.N. in 2006, most American news sources presented it as a crude and clownlike gesture. According to Jones, Chávez is hardly just a jester, but uses vulgarity to remind his friends and his enemies of his humble beginnings, as well as to win a tremendous amount of publicity. Jones's precise and entertaining account moves smoothly through Chávez's beginnings up to his current position, making Venezuelan history accessible. (Sept. 4)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Hugo! “is a book fully willing to do what American journalists mostly have avoided, which is to take Chávez seriously as a product both of local problems and of Latin American revolutionary traditions . . . It is also the most comprehensive of the available books on Chávez.” – Newsday
“Essential reading for anyone interested in understanding global – as well as Latin American – politics.” – The Tribune (UK)
"... stands as the most authoritative and best-researched among the new crop of studies.... The compelling story of Chavez's rise ... is scrupulously gathered and expertly assembled by Jones. He offers insight into the passion for justice...Jones also excels in providing sufficient historical context to understand Chavez's ideological formation." — Marc Cooper for Truthdig.com
"To understand Venezuela today you have to understand Venezuela B.C. - Before Chavez. . . . It is that rancid economic and political landscape that forms the backdrop of Chavez's rise. And it is masterly charted . . . in Bart Jones' comprehensive new biography.
Hugo-biographers too often resort to either stultifying hagiography or gratuitous demonization . . . Hugo! mark(s) an even-handed departure from that routine. . . . (Jones) displays an expert appreciation of the local milieu that formed Hugo's personality . . . One merit of Hugo! is that it cuts through the hysteria of the Chavez 'threat' to offer a . . . level-headed assessment. . . . Jones' well researched look at Chavez's vast social programs suggests a politician more motivated by common sense than communism." — Tim Padgett at Time.com
"Jones describes the story 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. . . . 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' 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
"Chávez's rise has a made-for-Hollywood quality. . . . Jones provides a superb description of the economic inequities that helped create the conditions for a populist such as Chávez to come to power. . . . As Hugo! points out, mainstream press coverage is often hostile to the Venezuelan president. . . . Where Jones truly excels is in his observations of Venezuelan society and the outsized role oil has played in molding the national character." — Washington Post (cover review)
"Jones's book is thoughtful, comprehensive . . . the best in the bunch." — The Boston Globe
"Without taking a political stance, Jones provides a nuanced account of the Venezuelan leader's life, creating a portrait that is, if not sympathetic, certainly more balanced than previous ones. Jones's precise and entertaining account moves smoothly through Chávez's beginnings up to his current position, making Venezuelan history accessible." — Publishers Weekly
"This first major English language biography of Hugo Chavez is a masterful achievement that finally puts this crucial Latin American figure of the early 21st Century into context within Venezuela, within Latin America, as well as internationally. Bart Jones has gotten hold of great detail and anecdote, and portrays a colorful leader in times of crisis, rising from low military rank to the zenith of national power, as Venezuela and its people — and Chavez himself — begin to take charge of the country's terrific oil reserves and to flex national muscle on the world stage. An important work for our era —Chavez will in all likelihood cast a long and significant political shadow in the Western Hemisphere for the foreseeable future, and we need to understand this complicated figure as events unfold." — Amy Wilentz
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Read an Excerpt
The Hugo Chávez Story From Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution
By Bart Jones
Steerforth PressCopyright © 2007 Bart Jones
All rights reserved.
Hugo Chávez's presidency was slipping out of his hands. Hundreds of thousands of protestors were marching toward the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, on April 11, 2002, demanding that he resign. "Get out Chávez, traitor!" some yelled. "We're going to topple the government!" "Chávez is going to pay!" It was one of the largest protest marches in Venezuelan history, a diverse coalition of men, women, and even children waving flags, blowing whistles, and banging pots. Many had their faces painted yellow, red, and blue, the colors of Venezuela's flag.
Three years into his presidency Chávez was a hated man among some Venezuelans. They believed he was a messianic demagogue, another Fidel Castro who was destroying the country with a half-baked experiment in communism. To the protestors, Chávez had divided Venezuela between rich and poor, pushing a peaceful nation to the brink of civil war. He dismissed the wealthy elites who led the opposition as "squealing pigs," "rancid oligarchs," and "the squalid ones." He denounced the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy in Venezuela as a "tumor" and "devils in vestments." Chávez was an embarrassment to the protestors, a crackpot caudillo who was inciting class warfare and plunging the country into economic chaos.
But as word spread in the capital city's teeming mountainside barrios that the protestors had illegally changed the route of their march at the last minute and were converging on Miraflores, several thousand of Chávez's supporters jumped on motorcycles and public buses to head to the palace. They vowed to defend the president to the death. To them, he was a messiah. He was the first president in Venezuela's history to stand up for millions of poor people who made up a majority of the population. Venezuela possessed the largest oil reserves in the world outside the Middle East and was one of the largest foreign suppliers to the United States, yet most of its population was mired in poverty. Many blamed a corrupt ruling elite for pillaging the oil wealth and amassing private fortunes. While bus drivers, electricians, and teachers lived in shacks, the elites jetted off to Europe and the United States for vacations and lived in gated mansions.
A few hundred of the Chavistas gathered on an overpass near Miraflores called Llaguno Bridge. To distinguish themselves from the protestors, many had their faces painted red, Chávez's color. Down on the streets, thin lines of Metropolitan Police and National Guardsmen tried to keep the groups apart. Clothing stores, coffee shops, and restaurants that sold corn bread arepas were closed, with metal gates pulled down to protect the windows. The hot Caribbean sun was beating down on the city. Tear gas choked the air.
At about 3:20 P.M. one of the anti-Chávez protestors, twenty-nine-year-old Aristóteles Aranguren, was standing on Baralt Avenue about seven blocks from Miraflores when the first shots rang out. He wasn't sure where they came from, but he assumed it was the Chavistas. The bald, freckle-faced former soldier and fifth-grade teacher flinched and ducked behind a tank-like vehicle called the Whale. It was owned by the Metropolitan Police and had suddenly turned onto Baralt from a side street. Aranguren started running backward and had gone just a few steps when a woman on the seventh floor of a nearby office building yelled out a window, "Watch out! They're bringing someone wounded!" A group of men came running down the street carrying the limp, bloody body of a man by the arms and legs. The man was slipping from their grasp, so they paused to get a better hold.
Aranguren ran over to see if he could help with some of the first-aid techniques he had learned in the military. The victim was about twenty and dressed in black — shirt, jacket, and dungarees. His body was limp, and his head was hanging to the side. A bullet had pierced it on the left side just above the ear, exiting on the right. It left an inch-wide hole through which Aranguren could see part of the man's gray, bloody brain. In his free hand one of the rescuers was carrying a bloody gray glob that looked like another part of the young man's brain. He was bleeding profusely. The back of his head was soaked through in blood, matting down his hair.
Aranguren was enraged at the sight of the young man, who appeared dead. The protestors had come to peacefully demand that Chávez resign. Aranguren had never imagined the march would turn bloody. Maybe some tear gas from the police. Maybe some fistfights with the Chavistas. But never gunshots.
Keeping a wary eye on the bridge, he retreated another twenty yards south on Baralt. More gunshots rang out. He could see the leaves shake on a tree in front of a McDonald's as bullets whizzed by. At the corner of University Avenue, he encountered a second revolting scene: a man lying faceup and unconscious on the sidewalk. A bullet hole left a gaping wound on the left side of his head. Five protestors stood around him in shocked silence. One held his head slightly off the ground and unsuccessfully pressed a handkerchief against the wound to try to stop the bleeding. The cloth was soaked with blood.
Aranguren quickly surveyed the ghastly scene, and was struck by a chilling thought. Both men were killed with a single bullet to the head. Were snipers taking people out? He'd undergone training in the military in how to neutralize snipers, and this seemed to fit the bill. He glanced at the rooftops of buildings up and down the street, but didn't see anything unusual. Then he took off running, turning his back to the overpass and yelling to the crowd, "There are snipers! Go back! Two people are already dead!"
He had gone about thirty yards when, on the other side of the street, he saw the head of a man running parallel to him jerk forward abruptly as if someone had pushed him from behind. The man then crumpled to the ground. He was thin, with a crew cut and no shirt. He had taken a bullet to the head, which now had a small stain on it. He lay on his right side on the sidewalk and did not move. It was the third person Aranguren saw with a bullet in the head. The shooting had started barely a minute ago.
Shots were still raining down on the crowd. About fifty people were in the immediate area around Aranguren. Half a dozen or so had bullet wounds to their feet, legs, torsos, or arms. People were walking, trotting, sprinting in all directions. Others just stood there, dumbfounded. No one knew where the shots were coming from or what was happening.
Aranguren kept running, turning his eyes quickly again to the street in front of him. Ten yards away he saw another man lying onhis back on the sidewalk in front of a men's clothing store. A protestor running in front of Aranguren spotted the man at the last minute and leaped over his body. The man was motionless except for his lower left arm and hand, which were extended into the air and moving back and forth weakly in a sweeping motion. Just as Aranguren reached him, his arm fell to the ground and stopped moving.
Aranguren stopped in front of the man and looked down. He was about forty, had black hair, a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and white sneakers. His face was full of sweat from running in the tropical heat. On the left side of his neck was a gaping bullet wound. Blood was gushing out. He didn't look like he had much life left in him. His lips were white. His eyes were 90 percent closed. His head moved slightly from side to side.
Part of Aranguren wanted to leave the man and flee, since his own life was in danger. But he had seen his arm move a moment earlier, and thought he might still be alive. He couldn't just abandon him.
He dropped to the ground and straddled the man with one leg on either side. Then he did the only thing he could think of to stop the bleeding: He shoved the middle finger of his right hand into the warm, slippery wound, which swallowed his finger completely. The man's bleeding slowed but did not stop. The wound was near his artery. Aranguren could feel blood pulsing against his finger. Maybe there was a chance to save him after all, he thought. Another marcher came over, crouched down, and said, "How is he? Is he alive?"
"I think so," Aranguren responded. "Call the rescue squad. Call civil defense."
Luckily paramedics were in the area in case the protest turned violent. Two quickly came zooming up the sidewalk on a motorcycle from the south of Baralt, where most of the protestors were massed. One jumped off and shouted at Aranguren, "Don't take your finger out of there! Wait a second!" The paramedic was in his midthirties and wearing a bulky jacket that served as his medical kit. Its pockets were filled with bandages, needles, sutures, rubber gloves, splints, gauze, little bottles with liquid medicines. He was a walking emergency room.
He crouched down next to the man on the sidewalk, pulled out a needle and a small bottle of medicine, and told Aranguren he was going to inject the man with it. If he was still alive, he would respond, the paramedic said. He jammed the needle into the man's right arm, squeezed the lever, and pulled the needle out. Then he opened the man's eyelids and looked at his eyes. Nothing. "I'm going to put another injection in his arm," the paramedic said. "If he responds, he's alive. If he doesn't, he's dead, and I have to go to another victim that needs help."
Aranguren protested, "But he's alive. I can feel the pulse. You've got to do something." He told the paramedic he wanted to at least carry the man out of there, out of the line of fire, to a safe location where he could be treated.
The paramedic explained that Aranguren might simply be feeling the man's blood draining from his brain. He injected him a second time, looked at his eyes, and again saw no response. "This person can't be saved," he said. "He's practically dead."
Aranguren exploded with anger. "How is it possible you can't do anything?" he yelled. The two shouted back and forth, and the paramedic ordered Aranguren to back away so he could look at the wound. He pushed him against the chest, but Aranguren, instead of backing away, simply pulled his finger out of wound and stood up.
Just as he did, he felt something strike the back of his right leg. He turned around to see if someone was behind him, shooting, but didn't see anyone. He wasn't sure if he'd been hit by a bullet or a rock. It didn't hurt much. But as he reached around, he felt that his pant leg had been ripped open. Blood was on his leg, just below the buttock. He'd been shot. He realized to his horror that the spot he'd been hit on the leg was exactly where his head had been just a second earlier, before the paramedic pushed him. The bullet had been aimed at his head. He was in the sight of a sniper.
Panicked, adrenaline pumping, he took off running down Baralt. He had his eye on the Plaza Caracas, a football field or so away, where he thought he might be out of the range of the snipers. He ran diagonally across the street, desperate to reach the plaza. But as he ran, his leg felt strange, like it was asleep in the area where he'd been shot. It was getting harder and harder to move it, as if he had a weight attached to it. Then the part that was numb got bigger and bigger. By now he was practically dragging his leg. He made it across the street but only halfway to the plaza before collapsing onto a sidewalk. Terrified that the snipers were going to get him as he lay defenseless, he started screaming for help. "I've been shot! Get me out of the line of fire because there are snipers!" Just a few minutes had passed since the first shots rang out.
* * *
One of the most extraordinary events in modern Latin American history was unfolding. The gunfire went on for several hours, and before long a television network owned by billionaire Gustavo Cisneros, the richest man in Venezuela and one of the richest in the world, was showing a video of Chavistas purportedly firing from the Llaguno Bridge at the marchers. In reality, they were firing at the Metropolitan Police, who were controlled by a Chávez opponent, and not at the protestors, who were too far away to be hit by their handguns. But it didn't matter. The world was soon blaming Hugo Chávez for the "Massacre of El Silencio."
Military officers appeared on television declaring that they no longer recognized Chávez as the head of state. Opposition political and business leaders came on, too, pronouncing Chávez an "assassin." Eventually Chávez gave in to threats by military rebels that they were going to bomb Miraflores Palace, surrendering himself to them while a general announced to the world that he had resigned. Then Chávez disappeared for the next two days. No one in the public knew where he was. In fact, he was secretly shuffled among four different locations, including a remote Caribbean island. At one point in the middle of the night, his captors took him to a dark, desolate road, where it appeared they were going to execute him.
Forty-seven hours after his disappearance, Chávez returned to power when tens of thousands of his enraged supporters took to the streets and loyalist military officers launched a countercoup to rescue him and bring him back to the palace. The two-day putsch was one of the most dramatic chapters in a life that has taken one remarkable turn after the other and transformed Hugo Chávez into a seminal figure in modern Latin American history — the most controversial and closely watched leader in the region since Fidel Castro.
Chávez's life story is the stuff of Hollywood, a Lincoln-like rise from poverty to power ... with a Venezuelan twist. He was born in a mud hut on the Great Plains of Venezuela, delivered by a midwife because few doctors worked in the impoverished countryside. As a child he sold candies in school and on the streets to help his family survive. By the time he was seventeen he had entered the country's prestigious military academy, Venezuela's version of West Point, mainly to play on its baseball team and pursue his dream of pitching in the major leagues.
But the road to professional baseball took a detour in the academy when he discovered South American independence hero and Venezuelan native son Simón Bolívar and launched a mission to change his country's destiny. He later organized a secret conspiracy of fellow soldiers disgusted by the nation's rampant corruption and moral decay, creating a clandestine cell dedicated to studying the Liberator's teachings. He met secretly for years with former guerrilla leaders such as Douglas Bravo, arriving for clandestine encounters in a secret location in Caracas that became a "house of conspiracy." He cultivated an underground following of progressive and nationalist civilians who wanted to pursue his dream with him, operating under the noses of military superiors who failed to stop his expanding movement.
In 1992 the conspiracy burst into public view when Chávez led a failed coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez. The paratrooper and his allies were enraged by Pérez's orders to troops three years earlier to mow down hundreds of people in the wake of food riots triggered by an International Monetary Fund — endorsed economic "shock package." It ended with one of the largest massacres in modern Latin American history, rivaling Tiananmen Square for the number of dead.
Chávez landed in jail for two years, but became a hero to millions of impoverished Venezuelans for standing up to a corrupt ruling elite. His detractors dismissed him as little more than a two-bit demagogue who was fomenting class hatred and hawking leftover 1960s Marxist economic policies.
After Chávez got out of jail, he spent several years "in the desert," crisscrossing the country in a mission whose ultimate goal not even he was certain of. Dead broke, he relied on friends and supporters to feed him and give him a place to sleep. The media wrote him off as a has been, and he all but disappeared from the local and international press. Secretly, he was still weighing another coup attempt. The United States and others hailed Venezuela's "model democracy" as an island of stability during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s when civil wars and brutal dictatorships reigned in the region. But Chávez was convinced that this model democracy was a fraud controlled by a corrupt ruling class, and that it would never allow an outsider like him who wanted to destroy the status quo to take power via elections.
In 1997, after his fellow coup leader Francisco Arias Cárdenas won the governorship of oil-rich Zulia state, Chávez underwent a change of heart and launched a campaign to win the presidency. He was the quintessential outsider — a man who had tried to overthrow the system in a coup. Most of the nation's eyes were on his opponent, a former Miss Universe: six-foot-one strawberry-blond Irene Sáez. Before Chávez, Venezuela was known for two things — beauty queens and oil. As a successful mayor in an affluent Caracas municipality, Irene, as she was universally known, was leading the polls.
Excerpted from iHugo! by Bart Jones. Copyright © 2007 Bart Jones. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Bart Jones is currently a reporter for Newsday and worked for eight years in Venezuela, mainly a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press. A graduate of Fordham University, he holds a master’s degree in Social Studies from Columbia University. He has also reported for The Atlantic City Press in New Jersey, where he won awards from the Philadelphia Press Association. He lives with his family on Long Island. Hugo! is his first book.
From the Hardcover edition.
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