Brought to book

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 April, 2009, 12:00am

Perceptions of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, are sharply divided. His critics, especially in the developed world, demonise him as a brutal dictator. Supporters swoon over him as the saviour of the poor and warrior against western imperialism. But, put aside the incendiary rhetoric and populism, and there is another facet: book promoter.

Give Mr Chavez a book, have him plug it either by name or as a gift to a fellow leader and, as his track record proves, it will go straight to the top of the best-seller lists. This was amply shown last week when Mr Chavez met US President Barack Obama at the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. Within days, the 1971 anti-imperialist classic by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, shot from being ranked 54,295 on's list of top-sellers to No 1. The same thing happened in 2006 when Mr Chavez raised a copy of leftist American political commentator and linguist Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival during a speech at the UN: instantly, there was a tenfold increase in buying.

In response to the spur in sales of Galeano's publication, Mr Chavez jokingly proposed a business partnership with the American leader. They would give each other copies of books to boost their popularity, he suggested. He could have no better sideman for such a venture, as Mr Obama has also proved to be a dab hand at book-selling. There has been hot demand for his two autobiographies since he became president.

Mr Chavez had a stormy relationship with Mr Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. His meetings with the leaders of America's biggest enemies have helped split the world along developed and developing lines. Despite the handshake, gift-giving and hopeful words in Trinidad, much work needs to be done to repair relations. Any hint of a book partnership between Mr Chavez and Mr Obama is some way off.

Regardless, the idea that leaders give one another books as gifts is a sound one. The pottery, paintings or native crafts they usually hand over add little to the ways of the world. So, with the assistance of colleagues and experts in political science, diplomacy and weapons proliferation, I offer a few ideas. The greatest book promoters of our time, Mr Chavez and Mr Obama, should take the lead.

A fine book for the Hu Jintaos of this world is American academic Robert Cavalier's Democracy For Beginners. China's constitution guarantees democratic freedoms and the president has promised to gradually implement such freedoms, but the process is, to put it mildly, sluggish. Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen needs to read Crisis and Change in the Venetian Economy in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, by Brian Pullan. It details how Venice reinvented itself as a centre for culture and the arts after the collapse of traditional industries, including shipbuilding.

Politicians have a tendency to inflict words of insincerity upon their people, making Cambridge University political scientist David Runciman's Political Hypocrisy a must give.

For the world's best-known nuclear proliferators, North Korea's Kim Jong-il and Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Charles Ferguson of the US Council on Foreign Relations suggests Robert Kennedy's Thirteen Days, about the Cuban missile crisis and how close the US and Soviet Union came to launching nuclear weapons at each other. It is a sobering account of the dangers of such arms and the potential for inadvertent or deliberate use.

Both leaders could also do with a book on etiquette. The subject is often dictated by culture, so a tome with a bias towards diplomacy would be preferable. Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official & Social Usage, now in its 25th edition, would be an excellent choice.

Lastly, all leaders should get to know Mr Obama better. They may think they know him from what they have seen and heard. They can go beyond the hype and glitz by reading his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post