Crazy Like a Fox - How Hugo Chávez turned Bush bashing into a global political movement--backed by a lot of oil

It's no surprise that the first thing Hugo Chávez offers me as we sit down for an interview is a cup of coffee. Chávez is a renowned caffeine fanatic, known for downing as many as two dozen small cups a day. Venezuelans speculate that it's one reason their President is so prone to impulsive diatribes like the one he delivered at the U.N. General Assembly last week, in which he accused President George W. Bush of being the "devil" and leaving a satanic "smell of sulfur" in the U.N. hall. Chávez wasn't done. A few hours before he met me, he gave a speech in Harlem in which he called Bush an "alcoholic."

But by the time he arrived at Venezuela's U.N. mission last Thursday, Hurricane Hugo had lost some of his bluster. On the basis of two previous meetings with Chávez, I expected him to be considerably less strident when sitting over a cup of guayoyo (a Venezuelan-style cup of coffee) than while standing at a lectern. Indeed, when an aide reminded him that my wife is Venezuelan, he asked to see pictures of her and our kids. He seemed genuinely surprised when I informed him that rebukes were pouring in from liberals in the U.S. Congress over the way he insulted Bush on U.S. soil. "Bush has called me worse," Chávez said, with a shrug. "Tyrant, populist dictator, drug trafficker, to name a few. I was simply telling a truth that people should know about this President, a man with gigantic power that no one seems to be braking."

Chávez, 52, believes it's his destiny to be the leftist David who puts the brakes on what he calls Bush's imperialist Goliath--not just in Venezuela, which has the hemisphere's largest oil reserves, but in Latin America and the world. In his eight years as President, Chávez has gone from a backwater strongman to a genuine global player, capitalizing on sky-high oil prices to spread his influence across Latin America and to win attention when he denounces the Bush Administration. That has made Caracas a hot destination for leftist tourists, bolstered Chávez's celebrity cachet--he counts Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte as friends--and made him the most visible Latin leader since Fidel Castro. But his rhetorical excesses, like his antics at the U.N., allow his critics to dismiss him as a buffoonish pretender. It was a sign of how badly his act played in New York City last week that even Democratic Representative Charles Rangel, a harsh critic of Bush's, went out of his way to tell Chávez that "you don't come into my country, you don't come into my congressional district and ... condemn my President."

Yet the problem for the Bush Administration is that while many Americans recoil, much of the rest of the world applauds. That's a big reason the U.S. is lobbying hard to prevent Venezuela from winning a nonvoting seat next month on the U.N. Security Council, where Chávez could run interference for his friend, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The U.S. is backing Guatemala for the seat, but Chávez has lined up the support of such influential nations as Russia, China and Brazil. And if Venezuela does win it, it would be the latest reminder that while 20th century rebels like Castro could do little more than rail at Washington, the U.S. today faces post--cold war radicals like Chávez and Ahmadinejad who have the will, savvy and resources to constrain American power and thwart U.S. interests. Says an African diplomat: "Chávez will stand up and articulate, however coarsely, the notion many of our citizens hold--that Bush and the U.S. have kicked us around for some time now after 9/11 and we would like it to stop."

Chávez has long been an insurgent. He grew up idolizing his great-grandfather, who went into the mountains to lead a revolt against an early 20th century Venezuelan dictator, and Simón Bolívar, South America's 19th century independence hero. "Chávez has always seen himself as that kind of heroic man of action on horseback," says Alberto Barrera, co-author of the biography Hugo Chávez sin Uniforme (Hugo Chávez Out of Uniform). Venezuela's ambassador to the U.N., Francisco Arias, a former classmate who took part with Chávez in a 1992 coup attempt, says that when the two men went through military training together, "Hugo was the one cadet who stood up to the awful hazing" at the academy.

When Chávez went to jail in 1992 for attempting to overthrow the government, the joke on the streets was that he deserved 30 years: one for the coup and 29 for failing. The incident won him admiration among ordinary Venezuelans, who backed Chávez for taking a stand against their criminally corrupt élite, who for decades had pillaged the oil wealth and left half the population in poverty. That popular support got him and his comrades released, and Chávez set out to take power at the ballot box instead. In 1998 he won a landslide presidential victory (and another in a special 2001 election).

Having vanquished Venezuela's political establishment, Chávez has set his sights on bigger targets. Exploiting the fact that the U.S. gets about 15% of its foreign oil from Venezuela, he pushed the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, of which Venezuela is a founding member, to pump up crude prices. In 1998, Venezuela's state-run oil monopoly, PDVSA, earned less than $14 billion in export revenue; this year it is expected to rake in almost $40 billion. In 2002 the White House was widely perceived to have backed a failed coup attempt against Chávez. (The Bush Administration denies that.) The resulting sympathy Chávez won coincided with the new petro-largesse he could spread around Latin America to curry favor for his Bolivarian revolution--including epic projects like a proposed $20 billion, 6,000-mile-long gas pipeline from Venezuela to Argentina to help integrate South America's economies. Chávez's anti-Yanqui message has changed the hemisphere's political equation, catapulting Latin leftists like Bolivia's Evo Morales into power and helping nonhemispheric powers like China gain a stronger economic foothold. "The U.S. fears Venezuela's presence on the Security Council," Chávez says, "because it knows we'll be a genuinely independent vote for the Third World."

Chávez has also poured the country's oil windfall into a New Deal's worth of social programs in Venezuela, including the first medical clinics that many dirt-poor Caracas barrios have ever seen--usually staffed by doctors from Cuba whom Castro sends in exchange for cut-rate oil. "I don't care if our doctors are from Mars," says Manuel Tejera, who is helping build a clinic and lay potable-water pipes in the La Vega barrio. "We feel more like real citizens here for once."

But Chávez is also a polarizing figure at home. Although his approval ratings are in the high 50s, there is growing impatience with the country's stubborn unemployment and violent crime. Teodoro Petkoff, an erstwhile socialist leader who is a campaign strategist for Chávez's main opponent in the December presidential election, Manuel Rosales, says Chávez's "21st century socialism" is only a short-term fix. "The real fight against poverty is a fight against unemployment," Petkoff says. Others complain that Chávez is a Castro wannabe who has subverted Venezuela's democratic institutions, especially the courts, and may well seek a constitutional change to let him run for a third term in 2012 if, as expected, he wins re-election in December. For the most part, Venezuelan media are still free to rail at Chávez--and they do. "Just watch two hours of television there," Chávez says. "My God, devil is the least of things the opposition is allowed to call me on the air."

What may ultimately erode Chávez's stature are exactly the things that he has skillfully used to boost it. As the price of oil begins to fall, critics predict Chávez's radical influence will too. Some analysts believe that Mexico's leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, narrowly lost the recent presidential race in large part because his conservative opponent painted him as a Chávez clone. The same thing happened a month earlier in presidential elections in Peru.

Chávez considers his bravado his chief asset, but critics say it too often makes it hard to take him seriously as a statesman. While Ahmadinejad wowed U.S. audiences with his verbal dexterity last week, Chávez seemed only to enhance his reputation for gratuitous Bush baiting. After Chávez's speech at the General Assembly, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, called the performance "a comic-strip approach to international affairs." A product of Venezuela's llanos, or rural plains, Chávez patterns his style after the straight-talking vaqueros (cowboys) he grew up with. (One of his favorite American films is Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider.) And Chávez is fond of calling Bush "Mister Danger," a reference to a quintessential Ugly American in Venezuela's best-known novel, Doña Bárbara, a torrid story set not far from where Chávez was raised. And the "devil" barb, he points out, stems from a legend about a vaquero who beats Satan in a singing contest. But at some point even cowboys have to learn a more diplomatic tune.

With reporting by Jens Erik Gould/Caracas

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