Hugo Chavez: Venezualean leader divides world opinion. But who is he, and what is he up to in Britain?

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The Independent Online

European and Latin American leaders gathering yesterday in Vienna to deal with the detail of trade and energy policy were quickly reduced to a sideshow. Mr Chavez, the high priest of political theatre, knows how to draw and hold the spotlight.

Even a bikini-clad Greenpeace protestor who burst into a group photo couldn't steal the show. Like a pop star indulging a fan, Mr Chavez told reporters he had no idea what she was complaining about, but she was very pretty, so "I blew her a kiss" he told them. It will be no different when he arrives in London tomorrow.

Before Downing Street had the chance to snub him, Mr Chavez announced that he would not be paying a call on Tony Blair but would be the guest of honour at a banquet hosted by the only politician in London one-tenth as colourful as him: the Mayor, Ken Livingstone.

To his critics, who are legion, the former army officer is a clear and present danger. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, has likened him to Hitler, and John Negroponte, the veteran of CIA operations in Honduras and now the US's supreme spy, has accused him of "spending considerable sums involving himself in the political and economic life of other countries" when he should be focusing on troubles at home.

Like so much of the criticism which is thrown at him, it burnishes his reputation among his supporters and leaves the critics exposed to the charge of hypocrisy. A poster boy for the international left, who like their heroes larger than life, he delights in tweaking the nose of an irritable superpower.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, calls him the "most dangerous man in the region". This is a mantle he has gleefully assumed as he has set about a political project naturally suited to his talents: getting under people's skin.

With his coffers swollen by a surge in oil prices - Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest exporter of crude - Mr Chavez has poured billions into his regional neighbours in aid and trade and styled himself as a latter-day liberator of Latin America.

The US, appalled at the emergence of an oil-rich, visceral critic in its own backyard, has set about demonising him as a dictator in the making. What they can't accuse the boy from the barrio of being is a fake. The son of Caracas schoolteachers, he is, like most Venezuelans, a mixture of Native American, African and European descent. He looks like what he is, a man of the people.

Given an education by the army, Mr Chavez has displayed a magpie's eye for the shinier ideas of revolutionary and social democratic thinking. From Simon Bolivar to Mao Zedong, through the more obvious route of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, he has arrived at what he calls "new socialism". Few people seem to know what this means.

The rise of Mr Chavez has regional analysts talking of a "pink tide" of populist leaders washing across the continent and they pick through each new election list to find the Chavista. In Bolivia it was Evo Morales; in Peru it's another former army officer, Ollanta Hulama; in Mexico it's Manuel Lopez Obrador; and in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega. That's right, Ortega. The veteran of 25 years of left-wing politics who finally seems set to win democratically this November. Hardly a newcomer or a Chavista.

At home, Mr Chavez's achievements are equally confused. Petrol is cheaper than water and the basic staples of life are sold at cost price through subsidised stores called "Mercal". His popularity remains high but the poverty levels have proved more stubborn to shift.

Teodoro Petkoff, a former minister with left-wing credentials of his own, and a rival to Mr Chavez, says he is a failed socialist. "The great success of Chavez has been to introduce social issues into the national debate. Paradoxically, however, seven years later poverty is still the biggest national drama."

The oil boom guarantees that his largesse can continue for now, but it also raises the question of what happens if and when it ends, as it always has before. Will Mr Chavez, like his hero Bolivar go from hero to dejected dictator with record speed?

The final word on the man he calls Hugo goes to his psychiatrist, Dr Edmundo Chirinos, who told The New Yorker: "His character is unpredictable and disconcerting." His patient is a dreamer of impossible dreams with "traces of narcissism ... Except for his power, he is no different than you or me."

In his own words

By Jerome Taylor and Kate Thomas

On George Bush: "The people of the United States are being governed by a killer, a genocidal murderer, and a madman."

On Tony Blair: "You, Mr Blair, do not have the morality to call on anyone to respect the rules of the international community. You are precisely the one who has flouted international law the most ... siding with Mr Danger to trample the people in Iraq."

On Fidel Castro: "My older brother. This is a man who has inspired me."

On Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe: "Like Bolivar, you are and always will be a freedom fighter."

What other people say

"He ... was elected legally, just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally." - US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

"[He is] leading a Latin brand of popularism that has taken countries down the drain." - US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

"It's co-operation from the soul, a brotherhood" - Fidel Castro on his relationship with Chavez

"It is encouraging to see ... a government committed to the democratic and social transformation of one of the most important countries in Latin America." - Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London

"Chavez is the only revolutionary in this revolution. He's a romantic. Nobody else believes in this." - Pastor Heyra, Venezuelan Democratic Action Party representative

"We can know him only if we join the criticism of his adversaries with the idolatry of his followers." - Dr Edmundo Chirinos, Chavez's psychiatrist