Author Rory Carroll Reflects on Hugo Chavez's Political Rule in 'Comandante'

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is "The World." Venezuela is mourning its Comandante. It's now official, President Hugo Chavez has died after a two-year battle with cancer. Venezuela's Vice President made the announcement today. Chavez wasn't able to overcome the latest complications following his fourth cancer surgery in Cuba. The news of Chavez's death doesn't come as a surprise. There's been intense speculation in Venezuela about his deteriorating health, and the President had not been seen or heard in public for three months, ever since leaving for that surgery in Cuba in early December. Still, now that it's official, Chavez's passing will generate new political turmoil in a deeply divided Venezuela. The Venezuelan military issued a statement today vowing to protect the sovereignty and security of the country. We're going to step back from the uncertainty surrounding Venezuela's political future to hear more about the man who dominated the country for the past 14 years. Rory Carroll was Latin America Bureau Chief for Britain's Guardian newspaper. He covered President Chavez and Venezuela for seven years, and he's the author of a new book about Chavez called, "Comandante." He says Chavez's roots were humble.

Rory Carroll: He had a remarkable rise. He was the from the plains of Barinas, which is basically the Wild West of Venezuela, from a tiny town called Sabaneta. His parents were teachers, very humble means, although he was raised by his grandmother in basically an adobe or mud shack, in his early years. But the parents managed to push him through school and as a teenager he fell in love with baseball, and his passion and dream was to be a pitcher in the major leagues. And for that reason he joined the army. He joined, he signed up as a cadet to the military academy in Caracas, hoping that this would open the doors to the major leagues. But instead, he fell in love with the army, and the rest, in a way, is history. Because as he fell in love with the army, he rose up through the ranks, and then he acquired a dream of revolution. He felt that Venezuela needed a revolt, it needed a cleansing, and he felt that he would be the man to do it. And he launched a coup in 1992 when he was a lieutenant colonel, and that set him on the trajectory to the Hugo Chavez that we know of today.

Werman: And, Rory, do you know where that kind of dreams of revolution came from while he was in the army? I mean, is he kind of one of these classic Latin American, leftist, traditionalist, Castro, Che, or did he have another path?

Carroll: It's very sui generis. It was very particular circumstances, I think, for Hugo Chavez. One is that, as a boy, he was steeped in the legends and mythology of Venezuelan history. His own great-grandfather was like a rebel outlaw called Maisanta, and he had been considered by some people as a mass murderer, by other people as a sort of Butch Cassidy, Andrew Villa type character. And Chavez fell in love with this story of his own great-grandfather, and also growing up he adored stories of Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of Venezuela. And he became convinced that Bolivar's wars of independence against Spain were incomplete. That, yes, Venezuela and Latin America had won its independence from Spain, but yet to win its economic independence. And he felt the fact that Venezuela was such as a site of such extreme inequality and poverty was a stain on the legacy of Bolivar, and that he, Hugo Chavez, would rise up and complete Bolivar's legacy by liberating its people from poverty and from continued economic dependence. So, it was this mixture of, you could call it either megalomania or just someone who's steeped in the patriotism of their own country.

Werman: Pretty unique, and he had a pretty unique style when it came to governing a country. How would you characterize it?

Carroll: Extraordinary. I've never seen anyone like him. I've covered the Vatican, Silvio Berlusconi, African leaders, and so forth, and I've never seen anybody quite like him. Firstly, though, his energy levels. I mean, the man was a machine. He would work, I mean, 18, 19 hours a day. He would be up, still working, I mean, till 3 or 4 in the morning, phoning his minsters, so that they're all in terror of their mobile phones because at any point in the day, Chavez may phone you. He was incredibly charismatic, and he translated that because he's a communicator of genius, into mass media. He was really a made-for-television President. And he ruled, in many ways, through television. He made these almost daily appearances, often extensive, they could go on for up to 8 or 9 hours. Sometimes he would chain the airways, meaning he would oblige every single radio and TV station in the country to transmit him live. And he would talk at extraordinary length, and in a very entertaining way, as well. And he made this showmanship a key part of his rule, and that was one of the secrets of his success.

Werman: Rory, you met Hugo Chavez, what was he like as a person?

Carroll: He was overwhelming in some ways. Actually, I was on his television show one day, and I was in the audience. I was just one of two journalists and he singled me out. And he said, "Rory, welcome. What question do you have for me?" And I was recently arrived in Venezuela so my Spanish was still rudimentary, but I kind of stumbled my way through a question about his concentration of powers. And, boy, he gave it to me. He did not like that question, and he gave a very theatrical, and very long, like it was about 15, 20 minutes, response to me. And this was all live on television, basically denouncing me as a symbol and as an agent of European imperialism, of old-style European vice, and then he used this to say and to talk about who elected, you know, the British Queen, about European colonialism in Africa and genocide, et cetera. And so this went on and on and on. It's funny because all these people seated beside me, there was all these Chavista mayors and governors in the red t-shirts who had been seated beside me, but they were edging away from me, literally moving their seats away to get out of his eye-line. Because, I mean, he was giving this kind of ferocious glare as he was pouring, basically, a bucket of abuse over my head. So, I mean, that was a kind of baptism of fire for me. Yet, I must say at the end of that show, he actually, he did come back to my question about 4 hours into the show. He actually gave a thoughtful answer in terms of why he's concentrating powers and why he wanted to perpetuate his rule. And he said, "Well, you know, the revolution is like a painting. It's like a work of art, and I am the artist. And as an artist, when the work is half-finished, you can't just hand the brush over to someone else and expect them to finish the painting." And that was the metaphor he used to justify his rule, and that was interesting. And at the end of the show, which went on for 8 hours, at the end of it everybody's exhausted but he did come up to me and shake my hand. And I must say, apart from anything else, as a shear exercise in stamina, I mean, to sit under a baking heat. And this was actually a show taped on beach, so he was sitting on a beach with a full panoply of film crews around him. And he did it nonstop for 8 hours. I mean, it was extraordinary.

Werman: What will be the legacy of Hugo Chavez, do you think? I mean, what in Venezuela will remain distinctly Chavista?

Carroll: Well, in the short term, economically, whoever wins, whoever succeeds Chavez, be it his chosen heir or somebody from the opposition, is going to face a really difficult time mending the economy, because the economy is now trapped in all sorts of distortions and dysfunctions. And putting it back and in some sense of normality is going to be quite a painful, controversial process. And, so that's gonna be the immediate legacy. I think the longer term will be the institutions that he politicized everything, including the army, civilian militias, the civil service. And trying to, if you like, to bring a sense of kind of normality back to that could be a task for decades. And I think one model may be, we're looking at Peronism. Juan Peron, the husband of Evita Peron in Argentina, he died decades and decades ago and basically, but even half a century after he had given up power, Peronism and factions of Peronism still exist and thrive in Argentina. And I think in Venezuela we're going to see various forms of Chavismo, even rumps of Chavismo will still be there decades to come.

Werman: Rory Carroll, of Britain's Guardian newspaper and author of the forthcoming book about Hugo Chavez. Rory, thank you so much.

Carroll: Thank you, Marco, it's been a pleasure.

Werman: Again, news out of Venezuela today that President Hugo Chavez has died after a two-year fight with cancer. The official announcement was made by the Venezuelan government in Caracas.