Hugo Chávez and Victor Hugo

03/08/2013 09:55 am ET | Updated May 08, 2013

Hugo Chávez was an invaluable instrument in the hands of hundreds of millions of people in Latin America gaining control of their lives.

He continued the tradition of Latin American liberation. It is a noble tradition, a world treasure, that started with Simón Bolívar, Hugo's heroic role model. It is embodied by Benito Juárez, Lázaro Cárdenas, and Diego Rivera in Mexico; by Salvador Allende, Victor Jara, and Pablo Neruda in Chile; by Augusto Sandino and Fidel Castro; by the liberation theologists Oscar Romero and Ernesto Cardenal.

Today, in large measure because of Hugo Chávez (and ironically George W. Bush), three-quarters of South America's 380 million people live in countries with leftist governments -- Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina among them.

I mention Bush because his insanely cruel, trumped-up war in Iraq took his attention away from escalating the ongoing corporatist pillaging of Latin America.

Chávez hilariously addressed the UN the day after Bush had in 2006. He said the devil had been there yesterday. Chávez could still smell the sulfur. He crossed himself. There was much laughter and applause in the General Assembly.

He began that speech by recommending Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival: The Imperialist Strategy of the United States: "It's an excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century, and what's happening now, and the greatest threat looming over our planet. The hegemonic pretensions of the American empire are placing at risk the very survival of the human species."

In 2009, President Chávez recommended another book, this time to a new, and more humane and intelligent, American president, Barack Obama, in a far more hopeful time: Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

But it was one book in particular that made the politics of Hugo Chávez. Victor Hugo's Les Misérables made Hugo Chávez a socialist.

As Daphnée Denis wrote the other day on Slate:

"[Chávez] spent a great deal of time quoting and analyzing Hugo's social novel, the story of the wretched of France -- Cosette, the orphan, Fantine, the prostitute, Jean Valjean, the well-intended convict -- at the beginning of the 19th century... He often evoked the book to defend his policies, reminding the public that his government was devoted to the lower classes, "those who spent much of their life in total misery, as Victor Hugo would say."

I translated, with Lee Fahnestock, the only complete modern American edition of Les Misérables. In a Huffington Post piece in 2008, "The Presidency of Al Gore, 2001-2009," I imagined what the world would be like if the person who had won the most votes in 2000, someone who loved books more than bombs, had moved into the White House in 2001.

I knew that Gore had seen the musical of Les Misérables with his sister, who was dying of cancer. I knew that Chávez's favorite book was Les Misérables. So I put the two men together:

"President Clinton had twice shaken hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and now President Gore sends an envoy to Caracas to draft a treaty of cooperation with Chávez. Gore arrives in the Venezuelan capital, where he and Chávez sign the treaty. Later, they talk about their mutual love of Victor Hugo's great novel of the dispossessed, 'Les Misérables.' They quote from memory lines from the great book.

Gore remembers this, about Jean Valjean: 'Then he asked himself if it was not a serious thing that he, a workman, could not have found work and that he, an industrious man, should have been without bread.' Chávez responds with what Jean Valjean's savior, the Bishop of Digne, says: 'Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you." Gore replies with this about the inspector who hunts Valjean: 'Javert was always in character, without a wrinkle in his duty or his uniform, methodical with villains, rigid with his coat buttons.' Chávez says this of Fantine: 'What is this story of Fantine about? It is about society buying a slave. From whom? From misery. From hunger, from cold, from loneliness, from desertion, from privation. Melancholy barter. A soul for a piece of bread.'"