Two Spies in Caracas

Two Spies in Caracas, by Moisés Naím, to be published on 

Before reading this book, there were two and only two things I knew about Venezuela. The first was that the country is the home to the Angel Falls, which I’d go and see if I happened to be in Venezuela, but which I wouldn’t go to Venezuela to see. The second was that it was ruled for about fifteen years about Hugo Chávez, who was much despised by the Americans.

Venezuela has oil – lots of it – and this put the country in a tug of war between the US and – as I learnt in this book – Cuba. The book opens with two spies, one each from the US and Cuba, who are dispatched to Venezuela on Chávez’s first coup.

Iván is the Cuban spy. A womaniser and a slick operator, his job is to cement the relationship between Venezuela and Cuba, and to make sure the Americans don’t get in the way. Cristina, a former US marine, now with the CIA, is his American counterpart. Her job is to make sure the Cubans are kept at bay. And then, of course, there’s Hugo himself and those around him.

The characters we get to know are not really the spies, but the public personas of their cover stories. Cristina starts a new age wellness business, which gives her insight, a contact network, and a genuine friend. Iván runs a fashion business. He shags himself around Caracas, eventually seducing Cristina’s best friend, and then meets Cristina herself. And that’s when the sparks start to fly.

The central narrative, however, is Hugo Chávez himself. Mercurial, charismatic and insecure, he is a man of massive sexual appetites. We meet him early on in his military career, and follow him to the end of his life, when he died relatively young of cancer. We also meet the criminal genius, Prán, the power broker behind the regime.

This makes for an entertaining and knowledgeable read. It’s not quite history, but the novel’s historical roots run deep and there’s a strong sense of time and place, of the chaos and conflicts, of the inequity that brought Chávez to power, but also of his inability to do anything other than wield power. We also see how he himself became a slave to power, ultimately unable to bring the freedom he promised.

This, for me, was the strongest part of the book. The corruption in Chávez’s Venezuela ran much deeper than paying a few bribes and having a criminal henchman; it was the corruption of democracy itself that shone through, the way in which Chávez convinces himself, or allows to himself to be convinced, to shut down the press, squeeze out other politicians, and to reward areas that vote for him and punish those that don’t.

As a spy novel, however, Two Spies in Caracas is not high on my list. The title of the book suggested a John le Carré style build up of tension. What spy craft there was, however, was not detailed enough to convince. The bag drops, the tedium of waiting, the spies who are forced to trust people they have no reason to trust and every reason to distrust, were absent.

In short, the spies didn’t have to work for their living. The good stuff is served up on a plate. Here’s an extract:

`Thanks to my pastor, I understand why I am still alive,’ Prán said…

[Cristina] followed her hunch and dove more deeply [yuck! cliché!] into [the pastor] Cash’s activities and Prán’s relationship to him. … Audiences with Pastor Cash, incredibly hard to secure for the majority of his followers, were regular for Prán….

[Cristina] requested that her colleagues in the FBI, the DEA and the NSA investigate Juan Cash. .. Behind the dazzling facade of his megachurch was a vast money-laundering operation for drug trafficking.

Two pages later, she’s inveigled herself into this incredibly inaccessible pastor’s office, and blackmailed him. It’s a fairy-tale spy story, with none of the inter-agency rivalry that would characterise someone from the CIA asking the FBI, DEA and NSA for help. Part of le Carré’s brilliance is the texture of of tension he brings, the imminence of things about to go wrong – which they only rarely do – and the isolation and necessary paranoia of the spy.

On that count, the book fails. There was a build up of tension, but it wasn’t the spy craft that delivered it. It was, rather, the delicate dance between two strong-willed protagonists under the gathering storm of Chávez. And, on that count, the book is well worth the read.