Any book with a title as utterly naff as the one on Chávez, I said to myself, deserves to fail, especially when its back cover burbles about its "made-for-Hollywood quality". It is a delight when a book rises effortlessly above the classification one had mentally given it. The author of ¡Hugo!, a US journalist, has produced an excellent study of one of today's most prominent Latin American figures. It is also a peerless page-turner.
Bart Jones has done so at a time when the experienced character assassins in the Bush administration must begin to feel they've got away with their well-planned slandering. Isn't Chávez the accomplice of terrorism, a friend of Muslims, the intellectual heir of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, and a liar, clown and narcotics baron to boot, just as the US media say? And wasn't that rude soldier really too dark-skinned to be attempting to mix in polite society? A touch of the tarbrush, as they murmur at the Caracas Country Club.
Didn't he therefore just deserve to be toppled in 2002 by a businessman called Carmona and some generals with US backing? The ambassador of the US to Caracas with his Spanish colleague surely wouldn't have had breakfast with Carmona on the day he had overthrown Chávez if Carmona had been a bad guy, would he?
Just as the high priests of orthodox platitude in the BBC, the Economist and the Murdoch press feel their task is done and that no one in Britain or the US can think of Chávez as anything other than a corrupt and gabby dictator whose time in office (and, indeed, on earth) has to be curtailed, if only for the sake of western civilisation, Bart Jones comes along. Bart, Britain has been in need of you especially - for those here who prudently distrusted the Bush version but were unable easily to find a trustworthy alternative.
Although it does not forgive Chávez's gabbiness, ¡Hugo! will help restore his reputation and remind British readers of that sense of hope in a future that countless Latin Americans are enjoying these days. They have voted in new reformist leaders, moderates and radicals alike - not just the Venezuelans, but also the Brazilians, the Uruguayans, the Argentinians, the Chileans, the Bolivians, the Ecuadoreans, the Nicaraguans - and the Paraguayans have as their president-elect a former Catholic bishop.
Millions of Latin Americans feel their society finally has some chance of being cleansed of some of its ugliness: of affluence for a tiny, rich minority and indigence for hundreds of millions of the rest. Not only have they got the leaders to help them towards that, but the prices of their oil and gas, their ores and their boundless potential for the production of food are giving many governments full treasuries. Then, in an added stroke of luck, suddenly the Colossus of the North, whose satraps, from Somoza to Pinochet, brought such widespread misery to them, does not seem so colossal any more. Not after what George W Bush has done to the reputation of US society, politics, armed forces and currency.
Jones does a good job of describing the mess that former governments had made of Venezuela as they turned an oil-rich country into one where the majority - those who couldn't afford to live among the gardens of the Country Club in the shade of their giant tropical bamboos - wallow in grimy poverty. He sets out well the national sense of frustration with the series of elected governments that ruled but did nothing to cure or even palliate Venezuela's ills. He also deftly unpicks the ridiculous arguments of those who say that because Chávez has a good relationship with the Castros he must therefore be plotting to make his country into a new Cuba.
Meanwhile, Professor Chasteen has put together a racy narrative of the people and events which two centuries ago led Spain and Portugal's possessions to break free of Europe. The author tells the story in little gobbets. He recounts the doings of the principal figures year by year. For 1815, for instance, the page and a bit devoted to the Uruguayan hero José Artigas in a mud hut with a thatched roof, cursing the "epidemic of Spaniards", is followed by a similar space devoted to how Simón Bolívar, soon to be acclaimed the Liberator of Venezuela, sits in Jamaica appealing for aid from Britain to throw the Spaniards out. On the next page, João VI, who has been evacuated from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro under the protection of the Royal Navy, is planning how to keep the two parts of his kingdom, tiny Portugal and vast Brazil, under Braganza family control.
As such, Americanos is never dull or stodgy. On the contrary, it sometimes gives the giddy feeling of one-damn-thing-after-another. Its weakness is its author's touching North American belief in the power of written constitutions and his cursory examination of the underlying economic realities of the shot and shell and march and countermarch.