Leading article: The man who dared to take on the United States in its own backyard

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The Independent Online

The Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, has not yet touched down in Britain, but already he has managed to provoke controversy. In a breach of diplomatic protocol, he has not requested a meeting with the Prime Minister. Instead, he will be having lunch with his soulmate, Ken Livingstone. This is just the kind of provocative stunt we have come to expect from Mr Chavez that has made him emerge as one of the most intriguing - and divisive - figures on the world stage.

To many on the global left, he is hailed as a hero for standing up to the influence of the United States in Latin America. To the right - and especially the Bush administration - he is a dangerous demagogue and a threat to stability. And as Mr Blair is finding out, Mr Chavez has an equally simple perspective on the rest of the world: one is either with him or against him. But which side should Britain be on?

The first thing to acknowledge is that, whatever the rest of the world thinks of him, Mr Chavez is the democratic choice of the Venezuelan people. Since being swept into office in 1998 he has survived an attempted coup and seen his mandate reaffirmed in a referendum. His domestic popularity is not hard to explain. Like Evo Morales, the new President of Bolivia, Mr Chavez has native roots. He was not part of the wealthy elite that ran his country so spectacularly badly for four decades. Such were the levels of corruption in those years that a backlash was inevitable.

Mr Chavez has had some success in rectifying some of the abuses of those years. He has boosted state revenues from Venezuela's massive oil reserves, using the money to pay for an array of social programmes for the poor. His belligerence towards the US has also proved popular, especially given America's history in the region. Indeed, the charges of totalitarianism by the US are driven more by resentment at his defiance of the Pax Americana and stranglehold on US oil supplies than by Mr Chavez's domestic record.

Yet one does not have to accept the hyperbole coming out of Washington to harbour concerns about Mr Chavez's style. There are legitimate issues over state bullying of those who have attempted democratically to oppose his regime. His appropriation of oil revenues was one thing, but his plan to grab underused ranches smacks of a disregard for property rights that may have repercussions down the line. A question mark remains over how readily Mr Chavez will leave office when the time comes; he has already hinted he is in favour of changing the constitution to allow him to run again.

His populist rhetoric often slips over into demagoguery. The divisions in Venezuelan society need to be healed rather than exacerbated. Yet his vulgar Marxist hectoring is stirring up social unrest. By contrast, the more moderate approach of another left-wing leader, President Lula in Brazil, has proved more effective in pushing the nation onwards. Mr Chavez's pronouncements abroad have been clumsy too. His baiting of Washington has led him into some unsavoury foreign alliances; he even found praise last year for Robert Mugabe.

And at home, too, the economy is not delivering the prosperity for the Venezuelan people that one would expect in a land so rich in natural resources. Venezuela may have been freed by rising oil revenues from its dependence on the IMF, but the country is still badly in need of foreign investment to develop its oil industry and to exploit its mineral wealth.

Mr Chavez's colourful defiance of the established order both in his country and abroad has unquestionably yielded results for the poor of Venezuela. But there is a danger that very defiance could end up harming the people who voted him into power and need him to transform their unequal land.