- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007

Loathe him or love him, strongman Hugo Chavez of Venezuela cannot be ignored. With Fidel Castro precariously clinging to life (or so his government claims), Mr. Chavez has emerged as the most disruptive — and strongly anti-U.S. — force in the Western hemisphere. And with skyrocketing oil revenues, he has ample money for mischief.

Given his frequent lapses into buffoonery, which would draw a chuckle even from the late Louisiana strongman Huey Long, it is tempting to write Mr. Chavez off as a noisy demagogue. Nonsense tumbles incessantly from his ever-open mouth. One recent mandate was that parents could use only the 100 names on a government-approved list when naming babies. Another was that clocks in Venezuela must be moved forward half an hour to “improve the metabolism” of its citizens.

Other stuff smacks more of dictatorship than foolishness. Venezuelans will vote in November on a constitutional amendment permitting Mr. Chavez to serve as president for life. (He graciously said he would step down in 2027; his current term runs to 2012.) Other proposals would strip the Central Bank of all its powers, permitting the executive (that is, Mr. Chavez) to spend Venezuela’s foreign resources as he wished.

He would be enabled to expropriate private property by decree, with no judicial review. He could nationalize any school, public or private, that declined to use state-mandated educational materials. Given that he already controls the judiciary and the legislature, and has muzzled all press opposition, the new grabs will intensify his power.

So who is Mr. Chavez? How did this obscure military officer become the de facto dictator of an oil-rich country — “Fidel Castro with a platinum Amex card,” as one of my Latin America-watcher friends calls him. His background is related in “Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela’s Most Controversial President,” by Christina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka.

Ms. Marcano is a Venezuelan journalist; Mr. Barrera, her husband, is a novelist. The book suffers from a structural clumsiness perhaps unavoidable in a co-authored book. The authors ignore any attempt at chronology — for instance, there is much material about Mr. Chavez’s longtime mistress before we learn that he has a wife and three children. Nonetheless, it is a vital look at the circumstances that produced Mr. Chavez.

Born into poverty in 1954, one of six brothers, in the tropical lowlands, Mr. Chavez saw the military as a means of advancement. To be sure, Venezuela needed leadership that would make wiser use of its oil riches. The civilian leadership elected in 1958 failed. As the authors write, in “scarcely 40 years, Venezuela’s civilian-democratic project became … warped and … corrupt, dissolving in a debilitating crisis that touched every area of society and its institutions.”

The young Mr. Chavez watched with admiration the rise of strongmen Gen. Omar Torrijos in Panama and Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado in Peru. He scrawled in his diary, “My people are stoic. Passive. Who is going to fan the flames? We could create a great blaze. But the wood is all wet.” He began plotting with other officers in a revolutionary cell called R-83, for “Revolution 1983,” with the goal of working toward the “implantation of a serious socialist system.”

A hopelessly botched coup attempt in 1991 ended with the government making the mistake of permitting the captured Mr. Chavez to make a TV talk to urge fellow conspirators to surrender. He seized the chance to state that the revolt had failed “for now,” suggesting another round was to come.

As the authors note, “The television stations broadcast the statement over and over again, not knowing that it would become a powerful and effective promotional tool for the failed coup commander.” Documents surfaced years later that had the coup succeeded, “the corrupt” would be taken to a sports stadium and, after brief trials, shot. “The homeland must be cleansed with blood,” one manifesto read. (Mr. Chavez’s conduct during the revolt led some conspirators to feel that he betrayed him; the scenario is too complex to relate here.)

Jailed in the Cuartrel San Carlos, Mr. Chavez “overnight had been anointed by the angel of popularity … a real life popular phenomenon was unfolding.” People lined up to visit him. He stayed behind bars briefly. And, in 1999, Mr. Chavez converted that popularity into electoral victory, becoming Venezuela’s youngest president ever — over a population of which some 57 percent lived in poverty.

Mr. Chavez thrives for several reasons. One is the gush of petroleum money that began as he entered office; revenues increased eightfold during his reign. Another is his ability to “incite the fervor of Venezuela’s more impoverished citizens,” despite the fact that many in the middle class consider him “vulgar and common.” And the latter have failed in attempts to force him from office, first by demonstrations, then by recall.

With the major opposition TV station driven off the air, Mr. Chavez fills the media void with a weekly Sunday morning program, “Alo, Presidente,” a prolonged rant on anything that strikes his fancy. One of the unscripted shows ran seven hours and 35 minutes.

Despite his claim of being a “man of the people,” Mr. Chavez wears sports-designer clothes and a Cartier watch. His government is heavily populated with military officers, for he does not trust civilians. His Venezuela suffers a severe case of the corruption endemic to Latin nations. The World Bank, in a study released this summer, ranked Venezuela as the second-worst country in the Americas for corruption (Haiti got top honors).

He startles subordinates by having an empty chair at meetings, which he says is occupied by Simon Bolivar. Although remarried, he is a chronic womanizer whose aides choose which woman to cut out of a crowd for his pleasure du jour.

Mr. Chavez’s well-publicized friendship with Mr. Castro pales alongside his dealings with Russia. In recent months he purchased 100,000 modernized versions of the famed Kalashnikov rifle — for army and national guard forces 57,000 strong. Add to that some 5,000 sniper rifles, and one must wonder what sort of cross-border adventures he has in mind.

Mr. Chavez’s parallels to Mr. Castro are obvious. His proclaimed “participatory democracy” is based on the creation of “grassroots governing councils” — I use the quotation marks deliberately — with executive authority over a broad range of local issues. These councils smack of the “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution,” the neighborhood groups that help Mr. Castro keep his populace under tight control. He has also organized “volunteer brigades” to turn back any Yankee invasion.

What must gall the egotistical Mr. Chavez is that Washington shows no interest in him, although much of his posturing is directed toward the United States, including vulgar attacks on President Bush in language that shan’t — can’t — be printed here. Although deep poverty still grips Venezuela, Mr. Chavez staged the publicity gimmick of donating underpriced oil to residents of the Northeast United States, a stunt promoted in TV ads by the foolish former Rep. Joseph Kennedy, who apparently gave no thought to the possibility that poor Venezuelans could benefit from the dictator’s largess.

Can Mr. Chavez continue? Texas oil people I consider reliable assert that a lack of maintenance threatens Venezuela’s oil industry, which means his money spigot is in danger of being turned off.

Nor is Mr. Chavez’s socialism sweeping the continent. As the Economist recently noted, of a dozen presidential elections since December 2006, radicals prevailed in only four; the remainder went to moderate governments, either center-left or center-right.

My read on Mr. Chavez: For now, a nuisance, but one that will last only until sensible Venezuelans tire of his circus.

Joseph C. Goulden studied Latin American nationalism as an Alicia Patterson Fund fellow. He is writing a book on Cold War intelligence ([email protected]

aol.com).

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