Hugo Chavez: Champion of the poor, or just another despot?

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"One down and two to go," the hard men who run the Bush administration's Americas policy were heard to mutter with quiet good cheer last month, as Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's troublesome president, was forced into exile. But the other two? Fidel Castro of course is one. But as far as can be judged, that particular tormentor of the US is as firmly in the saddle as ever. By contrast, the position of Hugo Chavez, the third man on Washington's list of hemispheric bad boys, looks parlous in the extreme.

"One down and two to go," the hard men who run the Bush administration's Americas policy were heard to mutter with quiet good cheer last month, as Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's troublesome president, was forced into exile. But the other two? Fidel Castro of course is one. But as far as can be judged, that particular tormentor of the US is as firmly in the saddle as ever. By contrast, the position of Hugo Chavez, the third man on Washington's list of hemispheric bad boys, looks parlous in the extreme.

For the last few weeks, Venezuela's president has been in charge of a country torn by social unrest and constitutional crisis, on the brink of civil war. The description of course perfectly fitted the Haiti of Aristide. But the ructions of that wretched and inconsequential failed state merely scratched the surface of the regional Pax Americana. Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil producer, the fourth largest supplier of the voracious US market, the third largest economy in South America. And then there is Chavez.

Vulgar showman, political street fighter, neo-Marxist autocrat, populist champion of the under-privileged, a narcissistic buffoon interested only in himself; all these descriptions have been applied to Chavez and there is a measure of truth in all of them. Two years ago, he survived what may be the shortest coup even in the extravagant annals of Latin America. He delights in cocking snooks at the US. Not least, he has divided his country by class and race.

For the mainly white élite which has traditionally run Venezuela, he is the devil incarnate, bent on destroying civilisation as that élite has known it, and turning Venezuela into a communist state. But for Venezuela's long silent majority of poor, he is a saviour - a tarnished saviour perhaps, but the person who nonetheless represents their last, best hope of a halfway decent life. And why not? For Hugo Chavez is one of them.

He speaks their language, to the point of calling President Bush "an asshole" for giving his blessing to the April 2002 coup. He is dark-skinned, "pardo", or brown, as Venezuelans of mixed race are known - the sort of person who inhabits the shanty towns of Caracas, known to the moneyed classes only as gardeners, maids or other menials. " El peon ha tomado la finca" - "the peasant has taken over the farm" - is the sort of thing you hear from the bourgeoisie, metaphorically holding its collective nose as it speaks.

"The peasant" was born 50 years ago, the son of schoolteachers. In 1971 he won a place in the country's military academy. He graduated a lieutenant, aged just 21, and began a rapid ascent through the ranks, joining with other officers disenchanted with Venezuela's increasingly corrupt political parties, and resentful of their country's demeaning subservience to the US. By the early 1980s, these young officers had set up MBR 200, the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement, named after Simon Bolivar, Venezuelan-born and the greatest of all South American heroes. Just as Bolivar liberated the region from Spanish colonial rule in the early 19th century, so Chavez has sought now to liberate Venezuela - and by example the rest of Latin America - from the Yanqui yoke.

In 1992, as economic crisis and social unrest gripped the country, he made his first attempt to seize power, as a paratroop colonel at the head of a coup aimed at toppling the then President Carlos Andres Perez. The plot failed. Providentially however, his captors allowed Chavez 45 seconds on state television to persuade his colleagues still at large to surrender, to prevent a bloodbath. At a stroke, the prisoner became president-in-waiting. "People of Venezuela," he began, heartily congratulating his co-conspirators before informing his countrymen that the movement "for now" had been unable to achieve its goal. The two words " por ahora" became the popular watchword for a revolution that had merely been postponed.

In 1998, it duly arrived, as Chavez waged a masterly and this time legitimate campaign for the highest office. He was the populist at his most skilful, charming everyone, making promises to all constituencies yet committing itself irrevocably to none of them. Once in office he brilliantly used Venezuela's membership of Opec, turning the country into a price hawk bent on boosting oil prices. In this way, he garnered revenues to pay for new social programmes - and signalled simultaneously that Venezuela was no longer the creature of the US, which bought almost all its oil, and provided the bulk of its manufactured imports in return.

The symbolic high point of his first year in office was a visit to the US, where he spoke at the United Nations, indulged his passion for baseball by throwing out the first pitch at a New York Mets game, and did the ceremonial rounds of Wall Street. But this was no profligate South American dictator extending a begging cup for loans, but the president of a country whose oil riches freed it from dependence on the IMF (which Washington ultimately ran).

Some saw him (and feared for him) as a new Salvador Allende, nobly steering his country away from the US orbit. But Allende was a doctor, a democrat to the core. A closer parallel perhaps is Juan Domingo Peron, who dominated Argentina's politics for three decades until his death in 1974. Like Chavez, Peron was by training a soldier, and when he entered politics, proved as least as charismatic, populist and polarising.

Allende for instance would never have consented to Alo Presidente, the weekly television show which Chavez launched and stars in - sometimes for four hours at a stretch. The programme is showcase for all his talents and all his weaknesses. By turns he is demagogic, cajoling, bullying, and threatening, vulgar or downright silly. He will sing, crack jokes, lambast some businessman or labour leader who has crossed him, quoting with equal adroitness from the Bible, Das Kapital, Simon Bolivar or even John Kenneth Galbraith on the iniquities of modern industrial society. The poor love it. The rich grimace with embarrassment and scorn for ese mono, "that monkey".

Then of course there is the America-baiting. Early on, Chavez used Venezuela's presidency of Opec to enrage the White House by making official visits to Libya and Iraq. He has hobnobbed with Castro; this month he announced that that he still regards Aristide as the legitimate president of Haiti. He has floated the idea of fixing the oil price in euros instead of dollars, and on Thursday said that any US attempt to engineer his removal would send oil prices soaring to $50 a barrel.

"He's very confrontational, and rash in terms of choosing his enemies," says Larry Birns of the Council for Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, who has met Chavez several times. "He goes after everyone, the church, business, and labour; and he's far too dependent on the military." But for all the charges of totalitarian rule, there are no political prisoners, no censorship, and virtually unfettered freedom of assembly.

His friend, the psychiatrist Edmundo Chirinos, defends the president's erratic style. "No, he's not crazy. All presidents all over the world have some type of personality disorder. Power deforms." Chavez does have an authoritarian streak, Chirinos concedes, and what he calls "an important quota of narcissism." But this is offset by "a great capacity for jokes, even at the expense of himself."

These qualities however could not stave off the 2002 coup - a particularly tangled specimen of its kind. The backdrop was conventional enough; an economy in disarray, discontent in parts of the military establishment, and a devastating strike at the national oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) after Chavez fired several top managers. What happened next was not.

Senior military leaders forced Chavez to step down, but he refused to formally resign. The new leadership grossly overplayed its hand, and the army's facade of unity splintered. As thousands of his supporters took to the streets, his enemies' nerve collectively cracked. Ousted from power on the evening of 11 April, Chavez returned in triumph to the Miraflores Presidential palace in Caracas barely 50 hours later.

The involvement of the US, however, was indisputable. Ideologues such as Otto Reich and Roger Noriega signalled to malcontents they would be delighted to see Chavez go. Indirectly, Washington channeled money to his opponents. Hardly had he been forced out than the White House hailed this "victory for democracy" - only to retreat in disarray as the Organisation of American States condemned what it said was a coup.

None of this entirely exonerates Chavez. He has failed his country with his erratic and sometimes blundering style, and his inability to deliver on promises. He likes to present himself as a champion of the third world, who stands up to Washington and the evils of globalisation. Which is true - but only up to a point. The US has indeed shamefully meddled in Venezuela's affairs. But the country's underlying economic problem is too little globalisation, not too much - a sheltered system over-reliant on a single capital-intensive industry, oil.

And after April 2002, the respite was brief. The economy has shrunk further, while strikes, purges and mass protest are once more the norm. Chavez' popularity has slumped anew, emboldening his opponents. Now a constitutional crisis looms, as the president wages a bitter battle with the Venezuelan Supreme Court to prevent a recall vote that could legally drive him from office. If a vote were held today, almost certainly that would happen.

Never, though, should Hugo Chavez be counted out. Oil, which once almost destroyed him, could yet be his salvation. Last year he fired thousands of workers at PDVSA, and used the savings to fund modest social programmes.

"If he can stall a few months, and if oil prices stay as high as they are now, he may be able to win back lost support and beat off the recall vote," Birns argues. The hard men in Washington would again boil with frustration. But for loyal fans of Alo, Presidente there could be no better news.

A life in brief

Born: July 28, 1954 in Sabaneta, south-western Venezuela. the second of six sons of Elena Chavez Frias and Hugo de los Reyes Chavez, poor schoolteachers.

Family: Married (and divorced) twice. Two daughters and a son by his first marriage, and a six-year-old daughter Rosinas by his second.

Education: Joined army as junior cadet, graduating in 1975 with a degree in military engineering.

Career: Venezuelan army, 1975-1992. President of Venezuela 1998-

He says...: "There are Venezuelans who don't care if they initiate a destabilising plan to further their dream that here come the Marines, and invade us and then do away with Chavez and take him prisoner or kill him. And it is not important if they kill 100,000 or 2 million, the important thing for them is to return and install themselves here. Well, they are going to keep waiting for 500 years." (7 September 2003)

They say...: "I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot." - Gabriel Garcia Marquez, novelist, 1999

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