Leading article: Why Hugo Chavez is no hero

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The Independent Online

Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, has been hailed around the world as one of the most exciting heroes of the left-wing cause. Yesterday, he was greeted by his fellow demagogue, Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, on a visit to this country during which he will pointedly not be meeting Tony Blair.

Mr Chavez has done some good for the people of Venezuela, by whom he was fairly and freely elected and among whom he is still popular. He has improved healthcare for the poor and is trying to spread education - although Mr Livingstone's claim that "illiteracy has been eradicated" was an exaggeration. Mr Chavez's popularity, both at home and abroad, owes much to his colourfully-phrased hostility towards George Bush and the US. Calling Mr Blair "an ally of Hitler" was typical.

Mr Chavez should, of course, be treated with the respect to which the leader of any democratic nation is entitled. And he deserves our cautious approval for having, so far, avoided the economic instability and political authoritarianism that is the fate of so many Latin American countries. But it would be unwise to hold him up as a model. Like Mr Livingstone, Mr Chavez first came to power in an undemocratic coup (although his was military, while Red Ken seized control of the GLC by power of the caucus). Mr Chavez is an unabashed admirer of Fidel Castro, which gives his attachment to democracy a temporary and improvised feel. As do the human rights abuses of which the Venezuelan government is guilty.

Most sinister of all, perhaps, is Mr Chavez's use of anti-US sentiment to create an external threat in the classic gambit of the tyrant. As we reported recently, he has formed a militia of ordinary Venezuelan citizens to mobilise against the threat of an "invasion" by unspecified enemies. That is not the sane or balanced action of a committed democrat. We suspect that even Mr Livingstone's enthusiastic left-wing supporters would rapidly lose their enthusiasm for Mr Chavez's brand of socialism if the Venezuelan's Mini-Me-on-Thames tried to recruit Londoners into a citizens' militia.

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