Venezuela falls for `New Age Peron'

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THERE'S SOMETHING about Hugo Chavez, the left-wing President of Venezuela, that makes the masses adore him and the elite cringe. He values power over wealth and wields it with flare. After just eight months in office, he is the most popular politician in South America.

Mr Chavez already considers himself to be a liberator for the 21st century, out to banish corruption from the world's third-largest petroleum power. A former paratrooper who blundered during a 1992 coup attempt and spent two years in prison, this silver-tongued authoritarian in his jaunty red beret could have stepped right out of the pages of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.

But will the Chavez brand of Magic Realism and Bolivar Messianism work in the 21st century? He is building railroads when other modern leaders are beefing up cyber-highways. Like Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century national hero, Mr Chavez envisions a vast territory under his control that would rival Mexico and Brazil in size - perhaps a merged Colombia and Venezuela, extending eventually to Ecuador and Peru. Recently, he declared treaties signed by former Venezuelan governments to be null and void, and he is eyeing a slice of former British Honduras and a jungly bit on the Colombian frontier. Cynics suggest he is jerking the nation two centuries backward and not pulling it into a rosy future

More than three-quarters of Venezuelans approve of the Chavez regime so far, though some detractors think he is setting himself up as a dictator, despite his democratic demeanour. Mr Chavez will keep at it for up to 12 years if his new constitution is ratified. His party, the Patriotic Pole, holds 120 of the 131 new constitutional assembly seats. It will soon be crafting Venezuela's 27th charter, but what Mr Chavez envisions is an extraordinary, made-to-order version of Magna Carta, letting him overrule the Supreme Court and the Congress. On Thursday, he declared a judicial emergency, and while he is overhauling the courts, his constitutional assembly can suspend any of 4,700 judges. Mr Chavez feels these institutions are tainted by the old political parties - the Accion Democratica and the Social Democrats - which took turns plundering the nation.

He tells the poor he is weary of kleptocracy. But one political analyst in Caracas says he "tells people exactly what they care to hear. He chats with Gore about the Internet and with Tony Blair about the Middle Way. Don't expect any follow through. There is no link between his words and his strategy."

The Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa lamented in a recent essay that, by following Mr Chavez, Venezuela was "turning its eyes toward a demagogue strongman" who "has the idea that Venezuelan society works badly because it does not function like a garrison".

With a new Moral Ministry starting up, and 50,000 soldiers doing his social projects, this may soon change. Earlier this month, Mr Chavez sacked the Army chief, General Noel Martinez Ochoa, who once was his jailer, on charges of wire- tapping other officers. He replaced him with Gen Lucas Rincon Romero, his own Chief of Staff since May. Virtually all the top brass are now co- plotters from the coup attempt.

The bullet-headed President wants to take his "salsa nation" and put it to a military beat. He and Carlos the Jackal are pen-pals. Shortly after his election he invited Saddam Hussein to address Opec and he confers regularly with Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Fidel Castro of Cuba. Now he wants to intercede in the Colombian Civil War - exercising his rapport with revolutionaries.

A mysterious hijacking of a Venezuelan aircraft was disowned last week by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels, who returned the plane. Officials think the rebels fabricated a story of a hijack by opponents of the Venezuelan President. By backing this tale, Mr Chavez showed sympathy for the guerrillas.

He has made no secret of his eagerness to play a role in the peace process. He has repeatedly stated that, regarding the rebels, his position is "neutral". This, with his refusals to tolerate foreign narcotics reconnaissance flights in his airspace, annoys the US.

Mr Chavez is often described as a New Age Peron. His blond wife, Marisabel, was elected to his constitutional assembly and already has Evita overtones with her health broadcasts and caring image. She fell for Mr Chavez when she interviewed him for radio after the coup attempt and is now expecting their second child while the country applauds its leader's virility.

Now at the zenith of his powers, Mr Chavez is a master at manipulating emotional scenes and invariably provides a spectacle. The novelist Marquez might have toned down the following scene, which, for sheer resonance, outdid even the President's 45th birthday party, complete with its conga lines, limbo-dancing bimbos, and cascading fireworks, a few days earlier.

At midnight, after Mr Chavez' overwhelming victory in the constitutional assembly elections was assured, a fervent crowd of 7,000 people mingled beneath the bedroom window of Venezuela's most celebrated talk show host, freedom fighter, and head of state. Suddenly floodlights lit the scene and the man strode on to his balcony in triumph. He lifted his hands to salute the crowd, which roared approval for a full 10 minutes. Then Mr Chavez hushed them to pin-drop silence with a single gesture.

The bullet holes left by his failed 1992 coup attempt were still visible in the stucco wall behind him, put into stark relief by the arc light. He beckoned, and his wife Marisabel emerged in her night-dress. They kissed and the crowd cheered.

Just as it appeared that the only thing lacking was a suitable soundtrack, the first couple clasped hands and sang the Venezuelan national anthem a cappella. The crowd was silent for one rapt phrase, then joined in at full volume. Later, when Mr Chavez drew Simon Bolivar's antique sword from its diamond-studded scabbard and vowed he had achieved a revolution without firing a shot, it seemed plausible. Mr Chavez is definitely a man to watch.

Cult Heroes

As the focus of a national personality cult, Hugo Chavez outdoes even the late Juan Peron (left) in post-Second World War Argentina. Half a century separates them but, like Peron, Chavez relies heavily on the army's support and the backing of working-class and middle-class voters.

While Peron reached out to these disaffected masses in the early 1950s through the unions, which formed a power pact with the Argentine military, Chavez appeals to them directly. He hears out complaints from anyone who clamours through the crowd to reach him, then insists that a minion jot down notes for future action.

Peron relied on the charisma of his wife Eva (right). Chavez frequently tours alongside his second wife, Marisabel, also a blonde radio personality with political acumen, although the former paratrooper is clearly the driving force.