The modern tragic political figure is not just endemic to Latin America. The ignominious fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—once a war hero to his countrymen—is the latest proof of this. But in her book, La Rebelión de los Náufragos (The Revolt of the Castaways), Venezuelan journalist Mirtha Rivero takes us back to the tragic story of a man who was once one of Latin America’s most promising leaders, and who fell from power (like his modern counterparts) from a combination of pride and the failure to understand the yearnings of his compatriots.
Carlos Andrés Pérez, re-elected in 1989 to a second term as Venezuela’s president, embodied one of Latin America’s first modern political tragedies. He was a democrat who was confident that his country (along with much of his region) had conquered its ghosts and was finally ready for governance by first-world standards such as fair elections, a competitive market-based economy and political parties focused more on national interests than on self-preservation.
Pérez was wrong on all counts. Concentrating on his second term, Rivero, who now resides in Monterrey, Mexico, argues that Pérez’ misjudgment of what Venezuelans were and were not ready for—combined with an arrogance that kept him from sharing his economic agenda with the public—ultimately cost him his job. It also, Rivero adds, tarnished his reputation as one of Latin America’s new modern leaders.
Rivero revisits Pérez’ fall from power through dozens of interviews with the most influential actors in his political tragedy: party leaders, members of his cabinet, jurists, economists, members of the Olympian “Notables” (a group of respected intellectuals who campaigned against Pérez), journalists, family members, and even Pérez’ mistress, Cecilia Matos.
The book notes that within a month of a glittery second-term inauguration attended by dozens of world leaders, Pérez, or “CAP” as he was universally known, was confronted with his first serious challenge: the February 1989 social uprising, known as the Caracazo, which came in response to a fiscal austerity package that most notably included a price increase in gasoline. After two attempted coups in 1992—with the first led by a then-obscure colonel named Hugo Chávez—and a May 1993 Supreme Court ruling that found probable cause to try the chief executive for misappropriation of $17 million in public funds and corruption, CAP resigned from office.
The number and depth of the interviews in the book are impressive. But Rivero’s narrative stitches the interviews together and gives the work its compelling novelistic, page-turner quality—even despite its enormous length. At times the avalanche of individuals’ names risks giving the work an off-putting, inside-baseball feel. But by the time the Caracazo comes up, about 100 pages in, the book is hard to put down.
It is through the narrative that we meet the presumably fictitious (or composite) members of the public who revolt at CAP’s economic prescription for weaning the country from its delusional vision of itself as the “Venezuela Saudita” (the Saudi Venezuela) and for kicking the habit of dependence on a patriarchal state. If anything, members of the public could have been more present throughout the book. Indeed, it is this public, along with the country’s politicians, who give the book its provocative title. The phrase “rebelión de los náufragos,” or revolt of the castaways, is CAP’s own from his farewell speech of May 1993, in which he blames a public adrift in a sea of national disappointment and bitterness for his fall.
Rivero is an incisive interviewer and deft chronicler, but she is also a compelling writer. Painting a picture of the “funeral-like” presidential offices the day CAP resigned, Rivero writes of the palace flag that had been torn by winds just as the Supreme Court’s ruling had come down: “No one was interested in discussing trivial matters; all talk was solemn, and the softest commentary heard at that hour had to do with the new flag that was waving over the building.”
By the time the book reaches CAP’s downfall, the reader hears the voice of a Venezuelan woman who utters: “This country is finally going to be fixed.” The sad irony, of course, is that the reader, like Rivero, knows where Venezuela is headed and how this woman’s hopes will be dashed.
Rivero might come across to some readers as overly indulgent to a leader who, in the eyes of many, paved the way for the rise of the populist and authoritarian Chávez—although she never utters his name in the 451-page tome. It would be hard to conclude that Rivero’s sympathies don’t lie with CAP, as she makes the case for how Venezuela’s intellectuals, mass media and political parties—first among them CAP’s own Acción Democrática—conspired to defeat a leader through what at one point in the book is referred to as “suicidal democracy.”
Yet reading this work as events unfolded in the Middle East and North Africa, as the world watched one leader after another contribute to his own defeat, adds a special perspective to the rise and tragic downfall of a president who also failed to fulfill the hopes his supporters vested in him.
Interviewees repeatedly tell Rivero that it was CAP’s overestimation of himself, his alienation from the Venezuelan people and his failure to see the need to communicate or explain his policies that were as much the cause of his downfall as anything else. At the end of the first day of the violent Caracazo, Rivero reports that CAP kept to his schedule of delivering a private speech, and she writes, incredulity dripping from her pen, “During this long day, not even the old teleprinters and telexes or the very new fax machines spewed out a government press bulletin.”
Sadly, it is this aspect of an aloof and out-of-touch leader—insidiously playing a part in his own demise—that gives CAP’s story its special appeal today.