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The people of the revolution

Review of COWBOY IN CARACAS: A Personal Account of Venezuela’s Democratic Revolution. By Charles Hardy.

I first came across Charles Hardy when he was a reporter for the Venezuelan online news journal Vheadline, to which I was also an occasional contributor. What impressed me about Charlie’s writing was that unlike so many other journalists, he would always place the human being at the centre of the story. Later, when as co-editor of 21st Century Socialism I was looking for someone to be our (unpaid) Caracas correspondent, Charlie’s name immediately sprang to mind. Those who knew both of us might have thought this was a strange choice. Charlie is a former Catholic priest from Wyoming, USA, who lived for eight years as a missionary in the slums of Venezuela, whereas I am a confirmed atheist and a socialist. Yet Charlie is no ordinary Catholic (and I am not evangelical in my atheism).

He may not say so himself, but Charlie is from the tradition of ‘liberation theology’, a school of thought which links the emancipatory message of Christian teaching to the here and now, and not just to the promised land of the after-life. Liberation theology has a long and proud tradition in Latin America. A Brazilian Archbishop, Dom Hélder Câmara, once famously said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

I suspect that Charles Hardy has been called a communist and a whole lot else besides, and when you read this book it is not hard to see why.

Cowboy in Caracas is a personal account of the momentous events that shook the Venezuelan elites out of their complacency and carefully-crafted delusions of social harmony, and propelled the downtrodden masses onto the centre stage of the 21st century. Charlie makes no attempt at a scholarly analysis of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, nor does the story revolve around Hugo Chavez as the epicenter of this political earthquake. Instead, this is the story of the people of the barrios who made the revolution, and with whom Charlie shared their lives, their disappointments and their dreams.

Beginning in 1985, when Charlie was first sent as a missionary to live in a shack in the Nueva Tacagua barrio (a slum on the periphery of Caracas), the reader is taken on a roller-coaster journey that encompasses the Caracazo massacre of impoverished citizens protesting against the IMF reforms, the insurrection that failed to topple those responsible for the killing, the election of Hugo Chavez to the presidency, the defeat of the US-supported coup and oil executives’ strike, and Chavez’s victory in the recall referendum.

At times fast-paced and at other times almost leisurely, Charlie’s unforgettable vignettes bring to life those whom the corporate media chooses to forget: the maid to a wealthy family who travels for hours to and from her cardboard shack each day to wait on them, the taxi driver who recounts hearing two well-dressed passengers saying they saw no value in teaching elderly people how to read and write, and the unemployed woman, hungry and homeless, who is “with Chavez to the end”.

Paradoxically, the weakest chapter of the book should have been its strongest. Charlie was in Austria visiting a relative when army generals kidnapped Chavez and briefly seized control. Unfortunately, Charlie’s absence means that his account of the 2002 coup lacks the vivid images and authenticity of personal experience that typifies the rest of the book.   However, the high quality of reportage elsewhere more than makes up for this unavoidable weakness. Long after I had finished the final chapter and closed the back cover, the sights, sounds and smells of the Nueva Tacagua barrio lingered on. And I was left with a deeper understanding of the poverty and injustice that led to the Venezuelan Revolution.

Charlie’s great strength as a writer is that he tells it as it is. He uses simple words and he writes without rancour, hate or sentimentality. The Venezuelans he describes are three-dimensional characters; you will find neither saints nor cardboard cut-out villains in this book. In the chapter on the Caracazo, Charlie recalls seeing a unit of soldiers shoot a man from his barrio and throw his body down the mountain. A few moments later, Charlie stumbles upon a soldier with an automatic weapon:

“No one was near him. I raised my arms in the air and said, ‘My name is Charlie. I am the priest here. The people here are good people.’ I asked him if he was from the barrio, and he replied that he was from the countryside and had been called into action the day before.

“I could see tears in his eyes as he looked at us. My neighbors began to gather behind me. I felt sorry for the young man and imagined how a youth from Cheyenne, Wyoming, would feel if he were suddenly dropped into the slums of a major US city, alone, having been told that it was one of the city’s most dangerous areas.

“Here he was, faced with men, women and children who probably looked like his own family. But I also knew that if someone threw a rock, he had the power to kill us all.”

More of an adventure story than a polemic, this book is a must for anyone who wishes to discover the human stories behind Hugo Chavez’s rise to power and the emergence of Venezuela as the revolutionary centre of the early 21st Century.

Suitable for the general reader, students, academics and opinion formers alike, the book smashes through the lazy journalistic stereotypes and disinformation campaigns of the corporate media. It opens a window to the Venezuela they would prefer you didn’t see.

Cowboy in Caracas is available from Curbstone Press at www.curbstone.org for $15 plus postage and packing. Major international credit cards accepted.