VENEZUELA DISASTER: All-action Chavez leads crusade of compassion

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PRESIDENT HUGO Chavez, Venezuela's Action Man president, has donned his fatigues and paratrooper's red beret to take on the task of mopping up his country after unprecedented rains and mudslides caused calamity last Wednesday - the same night he notched up his major electoral triumph, the ratification of his custom-made constitution.

After leading a helicopter search and rescue mission along the coast, President Chavez, 45, opened up his presidential palace as a makeshift orphanage to some 35 young mental patients who were flooded out of their asylum. His left-leaning political campaigns have championed the plight of Venezuela's downtrodden masses, thousands of the shanty-dwellers who bore the brunt of the mudslides.

The president is determined by ordering troops to bulldoze their way to any survivors and to airlift emergency supplies. He also is soliciting assistance from all willing donors, 26 nations at last count. He has ordered thousands of troops to leave their barracks to make way for those made homeless and called on wealthy Venezuelans to "adopt a family for Christmas".

Marisabel Chavez, the blonde First Lady who echoes all the social compassion of Argentina's icon, Eva Peron, said she was preparing to put up about 500 more children. The youngsters would be camping out at the Casa Rosada (Pink House) while officials try to trace any living relatives, but eventually they will be taken to churches, schools, or foster homes.

Pious sufferers in Venezuela wonder whether these catastrophic floods might be some sort of divine retribution. In the past few weeks, when he overheard sermons warning against his quest for power, President Chavez repeatedly lambasted church leaders as "devils in vestments".