Riding on a wave of popularism

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The Independent Online
AS THE focus of a personality cult, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela outdoes even the late Juan Peron in post-Second World War Argentina. Mr Chavez does not encourage such comparisons. He much prefers to be likened to the 19th-century liberator Simon Bolivar.

Half a century separates the South America strongmen, and lately, Peronismo has been viewed in the West through Lord Lloyd-Weber's rock-opera prism. Since its 1973 revival was cut short by Peron's death, his party in Argentina has suffered schisms over corruption. By contrast, the Chavez regime seems to have cut graft.

Like Peron, Mr Chavez relies on the army and the middle and working classes for support. While Peron reached the disaffected masses through the labour unions, Mr Chavez appeals to them directly. He hears complaints from anyone who clamours through the crowd, and then has a minion jot down notes for future action.

Peron was more aloof, and the charisma of his wife, Eva, a radio star, bridged the gap between his military austerity and the people. While Mr Chavez frequently tours with his second wife, Marisabel, also a blond radio personality with political acumen, the former paratrooper is clearly in charge.

Peron's downfall came when the Catholic church turned on him, and a military coup sent him into exile. By proposing a Moral Ministry, Mr Chavez risks alienating the church with a militant moral sector to rival its authority. The rich already loathe Mr Chavez for rejecting market values, but their voices are drowned in the cheers for his populist showmanship. His nationalism is just as ardent as that of Peron.