The spectre haunting Latin America - the spectre of Hugo Chavez - furrows his big, broad brow, pats my knee, and tells me about the night he knew he was going to die. "I will never forget - in the early hours, I said goodbye to my wife and three little children. I kissed them goodbye and blessed them." He knew in his gut he was not going to survive that long, bloody day in 1992, when he and his allies finally decided to stage a revolution against the old, rotten order loathed by the Venezuelan people. "I realized at that moment that I was saying goodbye to life," he says, looking away. "So it is possible that, after surviving, one has been a bit¿ imbued with that sense ever since, no?"
There are people who wish Chavez had indeed been torn apart by bullets that night. To Condoleeza Rice, he is "one of the most dangerous men in the world". To Tony Blair, he is "ignoring the rules of the international community" and propping up the senile dictatorship of Fidel Castro. But to the lost millions living in the cardboard barrios that scar the high hills around Caracas - and run like a river of trash across the continent - he is a saviour. He is the first man to use the country's swollen oil wealth to provide free medicine, free education and cheap food to the poor majority, rather than funnelling it into the bank accounts of foreign corporations.
But the inevitable movie of Hugo Chavez's life will not begin here, with him despised by the elite and loved by the poor. It will begin in a shack with dirt floors and dirt-poverty, in a small village in rural Venezuela in 1954. Hugo Chavez's parents - both schoolteachers - were too poor to look after him, so he was sent to live with the woman he still calls Mama Rosita, his paternal grandmother. Sitting in the Presidential Suite at the top of the Savoy, he insists this did not scar his childhood. "No, it for me was a very happy period. I would give anything to go back to one day in my childhood. I was indeed a poor child, a peasant, but I was very happy with my grandmother. She filled me with love and solidarity."
He looks out towards the Thames and says distantly, "We were raised in a very poor family in a poor town on the banks of the river. One of the things I most love is rivers, the water running, flowing. I used to fish a lot, and we would hand out fish in the village among our neighbours so they could eat. We would go into the forest and pick up the mangos and hand them out so they would not be wasted. I never felt any repression." Just as this is beginning to sound like sepia-tinted nostalgia, he adds, "I was in close contact with poverty, it's true. I cried a lot."
He remembers Jorge, a kid he played ball with every day. "Then one day, he didn't come to school. We asked why. They told us his mother had died in childbirth. This happened a lot, because there were no doctors for anyone." Since Jorge's father had also died, "he was forced to go to work and become a child-labourer. He had little brothers and sisters, and they had to be fed." Then he pauses, and remembers his own little brother. " Yes, I saw the pain of poverty. My little brother was called Enso, he was a very beautiful child but he became ill. I remember him lying in a hammock. He was always smiling. But he died. There were no doctors, nothing. We buried him in a bag. He was one of those children who are swallowed by poverty."
Jorge became a child-labourer and Enso died unseen by doctors in a country that was almost unimaginably rich. Venezuela was already swimming in petrol wealth when Chavez was a child, but villages like his - home to the vast majority of Venezuelans - were left in African levels of poverty. Chavez grew up in not one country but two, a sniping twin-set of countries who can only glare at each other across a chasm of riches. First there is Rich Venezuela, made up of the tiny light-skinned elite who have been sucking at the country's oil wells for nearly a century, and have grown fat and full on the profits. This elite built Beverley Hill suburbs to wallow in, and when Venezuela was run exclusively for them and for multinational corporations by their merry-go-round of corruption-soaked parties, the world congratulated Venezuela on its "democracy". This is the Venezuela that left Chavez's little brother to die and despises him now, trying everything - a recall referendum, a semi-fascist coup, kidnapping - to force him out.
But those beautiful marble-white suburbs were always encircled by another Venezuela. This - the Poor Venezuela - was the home of Chavez and his grandmother. Rich Venezuela's "democracy" and its petrol-scented riches had no place for them. But young Hugo did not understand this. His radicalisation began later - when, as a 21 year-old rookie just out of the Military Academy, he was sent to put down a Maoist uprising in his own home-town. "It is there I began to see," he says now. "The peasants were subject to huge repression. [The army would] burn their houses down, accuse them without respecting the rule of law. I saw how peasants were tortured by my own side. I saw it happen. But I also saw the guerrillas, the rebels, massacring our soliders. One of them died in my arms. To me, he was a peasant, a human being, but I was in the military. I remember him saying to me, 'It was an ambush. Don't allow me to die.' A solider in my arms. He had been shot three times in the chest. He died."
The blood-stains remained on his mind. "I began asking - who's right here? Who's wrong? Are we right? [Is it] my people who sometimes torture and kill peasants, or the guerillamen, who are also torturing peasants? This was the beginning of my thinking." For the next few decades after his twentysomething shock, Chavez began to rise up the army hierarchy, reading about and debating radical politics. He became obsessed with Bolivar, the nineteenth century revolutionary leader who lead the fight to liberate Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru from Spanish colonial domination. But it is only in the 1980s, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) entered stage right bearing a bag of shock therapy tools, that he found his political stage.
In 1989, the IMF demanded that the Venezuelan government slash the tiny slivers of spending that made their way out into the barrios. They ordered the government to prioritise the interests of corporations instead. Poor Venezuelans discovered that bus fares had doubled overnight, making it impossible to get to work - so for the first time in a century, they rioted. The army opened fire, and in a slaughter that trumps even Tiananmen in its kill-rate, they shot anything that moved. Hugo Chavez - by then a Lieutenant in the army - could not follow these orders. "I was in the army, but I asked myself - which army is this? Is it the army of Bolivar? No, it was not being used to defend Venezuela but against it, to trample the Venezuelan people," he says now. "Simon Bolivar said, 'Cursed be the solider who turns arms on his own people.' The soliders were forced to implement the bullets of the IMF, of savage neoliberalism. I would not do it."
Instead Chavez chose to rebel against the corrupt parties of the rich, who had all supported the IMF assault. In 1992, he attempted to stage a coup against the despised regime and prepared for death. Instead, he lived, telling me now he forever believes he is on borrowed time, pushing him ever further into risk after risk. He festered for two years in the notorious Yare Prison - his own Robben Island - comforted only by the knowledge that the candidate he publicly backed for election suddenly surged ahead and was set to win. "I was not alone. Many accompanied me. Many fought. Many died. I am not a hero because of that. It is because you are a human being that you do it," he says. Besides, "Prison is like an oven where you bake your ideas." He paced his cell, preparing for government.
Finally - in 1998 - he was able to put this jail-baked vision into practice, after winning power in a free and open election. His stated goal was no less than "to change the direction the world is going in," away from the "destructive model of capitalism ruling the world." He wanted to try something very different - to invest the country's oil wealth in the Jorges and Ensos.
Chavez has built "Missions" in every barrio, oil-funded centres providing free doctors - often for the first time - and literacy programmes for everyone, including the elderly who had never been to school. I still remember the pride on the face of a gnarled old lady I met in a Caracas mission as she proudly wrote her name on the blackboard for the first time. I remember the awe of the face of an old man who had been blind for forty years because of cataracts, but now could see again. I remember the quiet joy of a woman shopping in the new subsidised food centres, buying a plump chicken for her kids when before Chavez they lived on scraps. Now there are no children in Venezuela like the President's little brother, dying pointlessly because there are no doctors. This is a loud, proud challenge to the IMF model of mass privatisation and corporate rule - and all across the developing world, people are looking to it as a long-awaited flicker of hope in the darkness.
The President speaks about these programmes now in forensic detail - the amount of subsidy, what it buys, how it will make Venezuela richer in the long term to have an educated and fit population. "True democracy is not possible within capitalism," he says. "True democracy is only possible within the framework of socialism." A man sitting on top of one of the biggest pots of oil in the world is not supposed to talk like this. He is supposed to speak the language of Shell and Haliburton, not of Rosa Luxemburg and Simon Bolivar. He stresses he is not a communist, and he has said before, "Our project is neither statist nor neoliberal; we want the middle ground, where the invisible hand of the market meets the visible hand of the state - as much state as necessary, and as much market as possible." But in an IMF-ed up world, it takes a revolutionary to introduce social democracy to a developing country.
He sees these policies through a straightforward moral prism - here are riches, let's share them. Just like he handed out fish and mangoes in his village as a child, today he hands out the oil wealth. As the fossil fuel party draws to its terrible global warming climax, at least in one country, one time, it did some good. He popularises these policies on his weekly TV show, 'Allo Presidente' - a wildly entertaining show in which he sacks incompetent public officials with a whistle saying, "You're out", sings, dances, and makes Valentine's Day announcements to his wife declaring, "Marisabel, tomorrow I'm giving you yours."
But Chavez knew "I was making very powerful enemies" - not least in the White House. The Bush administration slams Chavez because he is a threat to the profit-margins of the petrol companies they depend on for their political lives. The petro-corporations fund American politicians' campaigns, pay for the think tanks that manufacture "common sense" in Washington, and will be waiting with fat contracts the moment they leave office. You can be as tyrannical as you like - anybody seen the House of Saud lately? - as long as you hand Haliburton a share of the profits. They are, he says, terrified that this idea of spending the profits from oil on ordinary people - rather than funnelling into the bank accounts of their good ol' boy paymasters - might catch on. It has already spread to Bolivia and looks set for victory in Mexico later this year. "Poor Mexico," Chavez says, "so far from God, so close to the United States."
And yet, and yet¿ amidst all this glory, could Chavez still join Latin America's long parade of false prophets, Che, Evita, Fidel, the people who promised liberation but could only in the end offer a tin-pot tyranny with a rousing marching tune? Will the Bolivarian Revolution end with a chorus of Don't Cry For Me, Venezuela?
His human rights-oriented critics point to his very close alliance with Fidel Castro and his decisions to meet with Saddam Hussein and even embrace Robert Mugabe. I put it to Chavez that under him, Venezuela has all the good things about Cuba - the great schools and hospitals - without the revolting things - dictatorship, censorship, repression. "I don't think in Cuba there is a lack of freedom of speech," he says with worrying speed. "If you approach Cuba from the perspective of the Western world, you might think so. But there, you have the people who express themselves on many matters. There is no repression in Cuba."
Really? What would he say to the Cubans jailed just for running private libraries, or to Vaclav Havel, who calls Cuba "the biggest prison on earth"? "What you have in Cuba is a very specific model of revolution. We are very respectful of the revolutionary people of Cuba and its institutions. In the grassroots in Cuba, there are constant elections that take place. Is it true that by electing a President or Prime Minister every five years you have democracy? Is it because you have press and TV channels that you have freedom of speech? There's a lot of cynicism behind that. So many lies behind that. Every country has its own model."
I grimace. What about Robert Mugabe? Does he regret calling him a " freedom fighter"? "He is my friend. I think he has been demonised too much. Have you met him?" No, I say - but I have met many of his victims. "We all make mistakes. I think you should interview Mugabe yourself so you have a better idea who he is and what he's about. You have to understand history of colonialism in Zimbabwe against the black people, he wants a world where people are equals without racism, that's my opinion."
It is bizarre. The Venezuelan press is totally free. Most of the newspapers hate Chavez and even incite his murder, but he has never moved to censor them one inch. In 2002, Chavez himself was kidnapped in a US-backed semi-fascist coup, held hostage for 48 hours, and forced to watch while the parliament and supreme court were dismissed and a new pro-American President was installed. Only millions of people taking to the streets and a rebellion within the army prevented Venezuelan democracy from being destroyed. But even after all this, Chavez is so reluctant to be seen as a dictator that he has not launched a crack-down on the conspirators. The men responsible are still walking the streets.
Yet here is Chavez defending some appalling dictators abroad. "No President will criticise his strategic allies to a journalist," one of his press officers tells me afterwards. It's true - I have tried to coax Tony Blair to condemn Vladimir Putin's monstrous mass murder in Chechnya or the mass torture in the jails of Saudi Arabia, and he offers weasely excuses. But given Chavez's willingness to wave aside a free press and elections in Cuba, could he one day do the same, travelling the old, worn dictator's path from zero to hero to Nero? Will he become like the guerrillas he saw as a stunned young soldier in his own home-town, fighting massacres and torture with more massacres and torture?
The President stands up, and places his arm around my shoulder, squeezing hard. The interview is drawing to a close, and he pledges that if the Bush administration attempts another coup, he will blow up his country's oil wells. "We are waiting. If they come for the oil, they will not get the oil," he says. And then he hurries away, back to - what? A slowly expanding programme of health and education for some of the poorest people in the world, a renewed democratic socialism spreading across South America? Or encroaching Castroism, fascist coups and oil fields burning and blasting long into the night?Reuse content