The recurring phenomenon in Latin America of the caudillo, or populist strongman, has been so common that it created a new genre in literature — the “dictator novel.” The first caudillos tended to control single provinces in post-colonial Latin America, but today they have gone global.
Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, the latest of these, has utilized his country’s oil proceeds to export his “Bolivarian Revolution” to neighboring countries as well as to ideologically amenable regimes in the Middle East.
Joel D. Hirst, who went to high school in Venezuela and later spent four years working at the American embassy during the formative years of the Chavez regime, has just published the first dictator novel written by an American author.
"The Lieutenant of San Porfirio," a novel based on the Venezuelan dictatorship, is also the first to be written while the dictator being portrayed is still in office and standing on both an electoral and biological precipice.
The October 7th election will present the first opportunity in years for those Venezuelans not benefiting from State largess to vote the socialist, terror-supporting president out of office, though it is not certain that Chavez would actually leave power should he lose (his top general has openly stated that the military would not allow it).
But an election loss could prove to be secondary to his advancing cancer for finally removing him from power after a tumultuous thirteen year reign.
Hirst’s novel mirrors many of the dramatic events that have punctuated the divisive rule of Chavez, pitting two student activists — one a militant leftist supporter of El Comandante, the other an opponent of the dictator’s makeshift socialism — against the backdrop of a society being ripped apart by the shopworn rhetoric of Marxist class warfare.
The climax of the novel features dueling speeches by these two protagonists. In one speech, the freedom activist, Pancho Randelli, elucidates what is at the heart of the conflict:
“And why, then, would I continue in bondage? Their answer comes from the pounding words you hear, repeated ad nauseam by El Comandante. We continue in bondage because they need us. They know this, and so do we. But we do not need them.
"This, my friends, is the source of the conflict. Understanding the vulnerability of their position, they use the only tools they possess to enforce our intercourse—their guns. ‘Your government is the source of all authority,’ says El Comandante as he waves in the air his AK-103, newly purchased with our tax money for use against us.”
Hirst uses satire and a bit of “magical realism” — a nod to the masters of Latin American literature — to offer a window into the worldviews of characters from different strata of Venezuelan society, and to underscore their historical habit of serially electing a “societal savior,” as many hoped when electing Chavez in 1998.
"The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" paints a vivid portrait of Venezuela’s internal political conflicts and the Chavez regime’s international interference with a compelling narrative seen through the eyes of those who are still living through it.
Hirst does not betray his own opinion of the Chavez regime, which he has covered in his work as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, but gives a nuanced treatment of the antithetical worldviews of his protagonists.
Hirst had previously authored a comprehensive analysis of the ALBA countries (Chavez’s political alliance, called the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas) in a non-fiction book released in May.
But for those who would prefer to learn more about the true nature of Venezuela’s conflict while being entertained by a highly compelling story, "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" is a must read.
As a primer for the historic election that will take place in Venezuela in just over a week, Hirst’s novel may not serve as a predictor, but it can certainly work as an interesting alternative history.
Chavez’s removal from power would not only affect Venezuela, but would likely be the first of the regional dominoes to fall, eventually taking down with it not only Chavez’s oil-financed allies in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, but also the half-century dictatorship of Fidel Castro, which survives only by Chavez’s good graces and subsidized oil shipments.
When these dominoes inevitably fall, the United States and its regional allies will find themselves picking through the detritus of another lost decade, wondering how another generation was subsumed by the latest carnival barker of a discredited ideology.
Jon B. Perdue (@jonperdue) is the director of Latin America programs at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, D.C., and is the author of "The War of All The People."
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