Hugo Chavez is driving across the plains of Venezuela, raving about a Hollywood film in which the enslaved hero rises up to challenge the emperor of Rome.
” ‘Gladiator’ — What a movie. I saw it three times,” the president tells an Associated Press reporter traveling with him in a Toyota 4Runner, along with his daughter and a state governor. “It’s confronting the empire, and confronting evil. … And you end up relating to that gladiator.”
The parallel is unstated but clear. To Mr. Chavez, the United States is the empire, and he is the protagonist waging an epic struggle to bring justice to the oppressed of Venezuela and the world.
In the eight years since he took office, Mr. Chavez has emerged as Latin America’s most visible and controversial leader, electrifying leftist movements internationally while controlling a vast source of oil. Labeled a threat by the U.S. government, he captured the world’s attention a year ago at the U.N. General Assembly by comparing President Bush to Satan — and he is likely to be just as defiant if he returns as scheduled to the United Nations this week.
Underneath the fiery persona is a man who both firmly believes in his vision and is shrewd enough to know how to sell it. Mr. Chavez sees the world in black and white and casts himself as crusader, a role that is at once genuine and expedient. He truly empathizes with the common people of Venezuela, but it is also vital for him to hear their cheers, be their hero and feel the power.
“Vamonos,” Mr. Chavez bellows to his entourage in the hotel lobby. “It’s a beautiful day.”
Mr. Chavez gets behind the wheel, seat belt off, and the motorcade sets out on a road trip through Apure state. He is visibly relaxed to be back in these southern plains, where he was once stationed as a soldier.
“Listen to this song,” he said suddenly, turning up the volume on the stereo. It’s a pasaje folk tune by Eneas Perdomo, a favorite from his childhood. He repeats the lyrics, then raises his voice an octave and sings: “Apure is always Apu-u-u-re.”
To understand Mr. Chavez, it helps to see these plains, spreading lush and green in the rainy season, all the way from the Venezuelan Andes in the west to the Orinoco River in the east. This is the land where Mr. Chavez grew up poor in the town of Sabaneta and later spent three formative years in Apure. It’s a personal history he draws on often in his speeches.
“A man from the plains, from these great open spaces … tends to be a nomad, tends not to see barriers. You don’t see barriers from childhood on. What you see is the horizon,” said Mr. Chavez.
The stereotype in Venezuela is that people from the plains, or “llaneros,” tend to be talkative, boisterous cowboy types with a rich tradition of folklore. Mr. Chavez fits the bill.
“I have deep roots here,” he said. “When I die I want them to bury me here in this savanna, anywhere, because you feel like a part of it.”
He said it was the injustice he saw here — of “impoverished people living atop a sea of oil” — that drove him in the 1980s to lead a secret dissident group. As he drives past stands where poor people still sell pineapples and cantaloupes today, he reflects, “We’re in the process of freeing the slaves. It’s still slavery, disguised.”
He has expressed the idea so often that it sounds almost rehearsed, yet still seems heartfelt.
The extent to which Mr. Chavez is actually leading a liberation struggle — or just using Venezuela’s oil wealth to buy popularity — is one of the country’s great debates. His government is carrying out agrarian reform and pouring billions of dollars into anti-poverty programs. But to some old friends like Douglas Bravo — a former Marxist guerrilla leader of the 1960s and 70s — a new Chavista elite today is in a power struggle with competing bourgeois factions.
“Chavez is an intelligent man, a man who dominates that game of the real elements of power and has the capacity to be constantly learning,” said Mr. Bravo, who respects Mr. Chavez but disagrees strongly with his policy of forming joint ventures with multinational oil companies.
Much has changed since the charismatic lieutenant colonel led a failed coup in 1992. Mr. Chavez is now at the apex of power in one of the world’s top oil-producing nations, accustomed to the finest tailored suits and the leather seats of the presidential jet.
Yet he seems to believe he is still that poor soldier from the plains, leading a revolution.
“I’m still a subversive,” he said. “I think the entire world has to be subverted.”
The tinted window rolls down at a military checkpoint, and startled troops snap to attention when they see their president at the wheel.
“Fatherland, socialism — or death. Good afternoon, my commander in chief,” a national guardsman blurts out, saluting with an expression of shock.
“Why haven’t you received the AK rifles yet?” Mr. Chavez asks, examining the soldier’s outmoded weapon. Mr. Chavez said he will find out what’s wrong because some of the 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles newly bought from Russia should be in their hands.
Mr. Chavez lives with a certain siege mentality, warning that Venezuela is under threat of a U.S. invasion. It is both a genuine fear and an us-against-them dynamic that he plays up to maximum effect. He recalls Venezuela’s 2002 coup, when he was ousted for 47 hours, and how the United States swiftly recognized the government that briefly replaced him.
In classic Chavez form, he describes his standoff with the United States through the parable of a scorpion that hitches a ride across a river on a frog’s back. Once across, the scorpion stings the frog and tells him: “I’m sorry, that’s my nature.” In the same way, Mr. Chavez said darkly, “the empire has its nature.”
“There are groups working, hunting me. They’re investigating, trying to infiltrate my security teams, trying to buy someone,” he said.
His security measures are tight. His agenda is often unannounced, and when in public bodyguards surround him.
“I’m condemned to death, like Fidel [Castro] has been for a very long time, and as such forced to take security measures that are so extreme one ends up not having a personal life,” Mr. Chavez said. “One ends up being a prisoner on a personal level.”
He adds, “Can someone who is threatened with death have plans to be in power forever?”
He sees himself as the heir of a historic struggle going back two centuries, in which his hero is Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century Latin American liberator. He has painted oil portraits of historical figures such as land-revolt leader Ezequiel Zamora.
And without contact with his supporters, “I’d be dead,” he said. “Nothing would have any meaning.”
He warms up to the drama. “I ask myself quite regularly, ‘Do you really love those people?’ … ‘Is it true? Does their poverty hurt you? Do the children who are barefoot and homeless hurt you?’ Yes, it hurts me. It can even make me cry.”
He rejects the international criticism.
“They accuse me all over the world, saying there’s a tyranny in Venezuela,” Mr. Chavez said. “They say I’m a caudillo. I’m no caudillo in reality. I’m a man of these people. I grew up in this countryside, in this savanna. I grew up like those boys you saw there, selling fruit, selling sweets.”
It is both the truth and the fable he tells of his life, as he drives on through the rain.