The Talented Mr. Chavez

A Castro-loving, Bolivar-worshipping, onetime baseball-player wannabe, Venezuela ‘s Hugo Chávez is perhaps the world’s most openly anti-American head of state. With Latin America in the midst of a leftward swing, how dangerous is he?

by Franklin Foer

Originally published in the May 2006 issue of The Atlantic.


Supporters of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez have elevated the political rally to one of the higher forms of recreation. On Saturday mornings, they board scores of government-provided buses in the slums and working-class neighborhoods of Caracas and journey to the urbane Plaza Altamira, the center of one of the country’s richest neighborhoods and the site of many anti-Chávez protests. Amid vans blaring folk music from roof-mounted speakers, they then begin a halting four-and-a-half-mile procession through the city’s concrete and steel valley toward the presidential palace. Along the way, marchers slip into restaurants, families picnic on street corners, and vendors meander through the crowd selling beer and Chávez dolls, which recite revolutionary slogans with the pull of a cord.

I attended one such march on a warm day last December. Walking behind a rusted hearse carrying a coffin on its roof, which advertised its contents—wishfully—as the corpse of George W. Bush, I followed the crowd to an imposing red stage, which rose twenty feet above the street. A cloth backdrop featured the visages of Latin American revolutionary heroes, including the Mexican Pancho Villa and Venezuela’s own Simón Bolívar, who once lived near here in aristocratic splendor.

By five o’clock, the crowd of several thousand had consumed seven hours of speechifying by Chávez supporters and grown hoarse from nearly as much “¡Viva Venezuela!” chanting. It began to grow anxious for the event’s promised climax, when el presidente himself would step in front of the microphones. You would wait around this long, too, and just as eagerly, for as everybody in Venezuela knows, Chávez yields incomparable entertainment.

As the sun began to set behind the stage, Chávez finally appeared. A preternatural showman, he knew better than to head straight to the podium. Instead, he walked to the front edge of the stage, one arm extended toward the crowd, the other holding a microphone. His head was topped with a big-brimmed sombrero, with blue, white, and red embellishments. An entourage of guitarists and horn players, dressed in the ruffled mariachi style, took their place beside him. Before he launched into his own hourlong fire-breathing, anti-imperialist disquisition, the Venezuelan president belted a medley of classic rancheras, a romantic genre of Mexican folk music:

I’m not a gold coin to be liked by everyone
that’s the way I was born
and that’s the way I am
and if they don’t like me
… it doesn’t matter.

The performance was characteristic. As a young solider, Chávez emceed a beauty pageant, and at certain moments in his presidency, he has resembled nothing so much as one of the hosts of the variety shows that Latin Americans adore. On his weekly television program, Aló Presidente, he spends hours recounting tall tales of his youth, reciting poetry, and conducting Dick Cavett–style interviews of left-wing guests, from Harry Belafonte to Fidel Castro. He once rode an Iranian-built bicycle around the show’s set to highlight his country’s economic ties to the Islamic Republic.

Chávez’s antics have inspired considerable confusion. Among the Venezuelan upper classes and opposition, there has long been a tendency to dismiss him as something of a buffoon, an uneducated provincial lacking in self-control and basic manners. Washington, for a time, adopted a variation of this dismissive line. The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela during the Clinton era, John Maisto, discouraged searching for significance in Chávez’s bombastic, sometimes bizarre, public appearances. “Watch what Chávez does, not what he says,” Maisto declared.

But Chávez is not just a clown with some oil money in his pocket. He is a deliberate strategic thinker—ham-fisted at times, but also capable of tactical brilliance.

The proximate cause of the rally I attended was a confrontation with Mexican President Vicente Fox. While Fox had joined George W. Bush in championing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, a kind of hemispheric NAFTA, Chávez had proposed an alternative trade agreement that would exclude the United States. Several weeks before the rally, Latin America’s leaders had discussed the two plans at a presidential summit in Argentina . Later, on his television show, Chávez showed mysteriously obtained footage of Fox making his argument for the FTAA in private. He then denounced Fox as a “lapdog of the empire,” a taunt designed to highlight the Mexican president’s ties to the Bush administration. “Don’t mess with me, sir, or you will get stung,” Chávez blustered. A diplomatic crisis ensued. Fox demanded an apology. Chávez refused to provide one. Ambassadors were recalled.

This isn’t the way that heads of state normally conduct business. But Chávez wasn’t flying off the handle when he uttered these insults. Nor were his comments (or the airing of the footage that occasioned them) primarily motivated by a desire to advance his trade agenda. By finding an excuse to denounce Fox as an American toady and baiting him into a response, Chávez was hoping to bolster the presidential campaign of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a Mexican socialist—and potential political ally—running to replace Fox (whom term limits prohibit from seeking another term).

Indeed, by some accounts Chávez’s advisers have already been in touch with López Obrador to advise him, and the Venezuelan ambassador was reported to have attended meetings organized ópez Obrador’s supporters. Chávez’s TV stunt certainly worked in his ally’s favor. While Mexicans briefly rallied around Fox in response to the attack, that moment quickly vanished. The attention of the press focused on Fox’s support of Bush—one newspaper cartoon in La Jornada, a Mexico City paper, depicted Fox blocking a soccer ball flying toward Bush’s head. Politicians of all stripes soon joined to cudgel the Mexican president for his cozy relationship with the United States and his alienation of the rest of Latin America, but López Obrador—who had long been the major candidate most critical of Fox—surely benefited the most. Polls conducted in late February suggest that López Obrador will glide into Fox’s old office in July’s election.

I asked one of Chávez’s oldest friends, Francisco Arias Cárdenas, to explain this melding of buffoonery and strategic acumen. Arias Cárdenas has known Chávez since they were cadets in the army in the 1970s. Together they plotted a failed coup and spent over a year in prison. After the aborted uprising transformed both into national heroes, Arias Cárdenas turned on his old friend and ran against him for president in 2000. Now they are in the midst of a slow reconciliation. Chávez “does have a unique sense of humor,” Arias Cárdenas told me, pausing to make sure that he phrased the rest of his answer carefully. “Chávez is a superb strategist. When we were in the army, Chávez took a course in psychological warfare in El Salvador. He became a big proponent of reverse psychology, baiting opponents into underestimating your strength. Chávez does this all the time. On his TV show, he might pick up a carrot and call it a beet. His opponents will begin laughing at him: ‘What an idiot! He can’t even distinguish a carrot from a beet.’ But after the show, I guarantee you Chávez will be the one laughing. He’ll think to himself, I can’t believe I fooled them into talking about carrots and beets all week.”

Bolívarian Dreams

During his run for the presidency in 1998, Chávez would sometimes convene political strategy meetings. The meetings were largely unexceptional, featuring quotidian tactical debates. But there was one notable idiosyncrasy: the conference table around which the meeting’s participants sat always had one empty chair pulled up to it. The chair was always near Chávez. No one was permitted to sit on it. According to one of his advisers, Chávez once pointed toward it and proclaimed, “This is the chair of the liberator.” He meant Simón Bolívar, who has been dead since 1830.

Hugo Chávez is hardly the first Latin American leader who has attempted to shroud himself in Bolívar’s aura. (Bolívar is revered throughout much of the region; through more than ten years of armed struggle and popular exhortation, he secured independence from Spain for Venezuela , Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador.) But few others have done so with the same conviction. As a young boy, Chávez memorized Bolívar’s speeches and re-enacted his crossing of the Andes. “Instead of Superman, my hero was Bolívar,” Chávez told an interviewer in 1999.

When he first began plotting to overthrow the Venezuelan government, in the early eighties, more than ten years before the actual coup, Chávez and his co-conspirators swore loyalty to one another on a spot beneath a tree where Bolívar had famously enjoyed resting. They would call themselves the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200—200 being the number of years separating Bolívar’s birth from their cadre’s founding. Chávez tends to invest these sorts of personal milestones with mystical significance, noting how fate has placed them on important anniversaries in his hero’s life. Alberto Garrido, one of the most respected analysts of Venezuelan politics, told me, “Chávez likes to quote a Pablo Neruda poem about how people return every one hundred years. He’s perfectly convinced that he has a historic mission, which is to assume Bolívar’s mantle.” In 1999, Chávez changed Venezuela’s official name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Where Bolívar fought to throw off the yoke of Spanish colonialism, Chávez considers the United States the imperial power from which all of Latin America must now be freed. Traveling the motorways of Caracas , you can’t avoid the billboards touting Bolívar’s jeremiad, “The United States seems destined by providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty.”

Chávez’s hostility to “the empire,” along with his more specific goal of purging American influence from the region, has driven his foreign policy. He opposed the war in Afghanistan and has flamboyantly cultivated relationships with members of the “axis of evil.” He was the first democratically elected head of state to visit Iraq in its pariah years between the Gulf and Iraq wars. He has invited Iran to open factories in Venezuela.

His theatrics distinguish him as perhaps the world’s most anti-American head of state. Chávez has described Condoleezza Rice as an illiterate, and has suggested that she suffers from sexual frustration (though he has declined to offer to help her with this problem, saying, “I don’t make that sacrifice for my nation”). Bush he calls “Mr. Danger,” or simply “asshole.” Last year, Venezuela withdrew all of the assets that it had held in U.S. banks and transferred them to the Bank for International Settlements, in Switzerland .

Just as Bolívar fulfilled his revolutionary destiny with a gun, Chávez speaks incessantly about the coming military confrontation with the gringos, a war that he predicts will last for a hundred years. “It wouldn’t bother me at all to end up on a mountain with a rifle defending the dignity of this country,” he announced last November. “The leaders of this country have to be ready to make an example, even give our lives if we have to.” In part, this is just rhetoric designed to exaggerate the American menace and bolster his domestic popularity. In part, Chávez is slipping into his romantic mode, as you might expect of a president who has disseminated a million free copies of Don Quixote to his compatriots. But Chávez has also closely followed the Iraq insurgency, and has called on his armed forces to learn how to mimic the Sunni resistance in the event of an invasion. That is, he wants to arm the people so they can form a guerrilla resistance.

To this end, he has begun organizing citizen militias, purchased 100,000 new Kalashnikovs, and assigned books on asymmetric warfare to his top brass. Last year, he intoned, “If imperialism ever has the idea of challenging Venezuela, it [will] have to deal with Bolívar’s people.” When I asked Nicolas Maduro, a fire-breathing, mustachioed Chavista who heads the National Assembly, how his political benefactor views Venezuela’s relationship with the United States, he replied, “Conflict, in all likelihood war, is the future.”

Bolívar briefly united a northern swath of the continent into a single nation of Gran Colombia, stretching from Ecuador to Panama. Chávez speaks of fulfilling this aborted vision, or some version of it. During the first seven years of his presidency, he has used Venezuela’s oil wealth to buy himself a substantial leadership role in the region, signing deals to sell Venezuelan crude at pennies on the dollar to other South American countries. He has talked about creating a Bank of the South that would free the region from the international finance system. Last summer, he launched a new satellite news network called Telesur, which will be beamed across Latin America and is meant to counter CNN en Español. “That network provides a U.S. spin on the news,” Telesur’s director, Aram Aharonian, told me. In contrast, Telesur bills itself as the “anti-hegemonic network.”

This anti-American bent has helped make Hugo Chávez a hero of the international Left—a title that he has aggressively courted. Long before he took over the presidency, Chávez planned Bolivarian congresses bringing together Latin America’s indigenous movements and leftist parties. As president, he has built a public-relations machine to woo Americans and Western Europeans of a certain sensibility. His government has placed self-promotional ads in The New Yorker and The New York Times. He has hired staff from Global Exchange, which helped organize the massive protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, to run a Venezuelan Information Office in Washington.

This outreach has turned Caracas into a refugee camp for socialists displaced since the tumultuous events of 1989. Chávez’s presidential palace harbors French and American activists. Marta Harnecker, the Chilean Marxist who wrote the seminal defense of the Cuban revolution, has an office there, too. Chávez routinely holds court with star academics and activists—from the anti-war icon Cindy Sheehan to Princeton philosopher Cornel West to the British essayist Tariq Ali—who return from Venezuela announcing the marvels of Chavismo, his amalgamation of anti-Americanism, Bolivarian independence, and Castro-tinged socialism. “We in the United States [hear] so many lies about President Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution,” West declared in January. “This revolution is real.”

While this kind of talk from the ideological fringe may sound like mere agitprop, the revolution is indeed real. Chavismo represents a bigger threat to American interests in the region than anything the United States has seen in decades. Not since the Cold War has America faced such a well-financed ideological competitor on its left. And Chávez has played his opening moves so masterfully—and the American government has played its so ineptly—that he may yet realize his neo-Bolivarian dream.

It is strange to find Venezuela run by a revolutionary who bows in the direction of Fidel Castro—and even stranger to find Hugo Chávez leading the revolution. As Chávez came of age in the sixties and seventies, political scientists celebrated Venezuela as an island of social-democratic stability on a volatile continent, a kind of Norway on the Caribbean . It had abandoned dictatorship for democracy in 1958, decades before most of Latin America . Civil liberties, trade unions, and political parties flourished. Oil money—especially after the 1973 price shock—allowed the government to build infrastructure and keep the economy running smoothly.

But the shock also created unsustainable economic expectations. Perhaps more important, it permitted graft to spread unchecked throughout a rapidly expanding government, regardless of which party held power. By the 1980s, lower oil prices had left the country with a corrupt government and a citizenry that was deeply disappointed with its economic fortunes. In short, Venezuela’s mood in the late 1980s was in many respects similar to that of much of Latin America today.

Chávez exited adolescence dreaming not of politics but of a baseball career, as a pitcher. To get in front of Major League Baseball scouts in the 1970s, however, you needed to get to Caracas first. He enrolled in the military academy in the capital city, intending to stay for only a year. But he had overestimated the potency of his fastball, and so he stayed in the military, unintentionally landing on one of the great social conveyor belts in Latin America. More than any of its continental counterparts, the Venezuelan army transported fresh recruits from the slums to the middle class.

As a young soldier, Chávez worked to put down a persistent rebellion of armed leftists who had been inspired by Castro and were waging a mostly ineffectual guerrilla war from the hills. By his account, he reached an epiphany as he lay down to sleep in a camp run by an intelligence colonel. He heard the cries of captured guerrillas, beaten with towel-wrapped baseball bats. A moral crisis gripped him. He later told the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez that, as he hung in his hammock, he wondered, Why am I here? The next day he committed himself to joining the rebel cause. Through his older brother, a Marxist university professor, Chávez volunteered his services to the guerrillas.

For ten years, while rising through the ranks of the army, Chávez lived a double life, operating as a revolutionary conspirator under the monikers “José María” and “Che María.” “He would drive five hours in a beat-up car to attend an hourlong meeting,” his old friend Francisco Arias Cárdenas told me. “He led our group, because he was the hardest-working.” Chávez traveled secretly—sometimes bewigged, sometimes smuggled in the trunk of a car—so that his military superiors wouldn’t detect his subterfuge. The conspiracy he hatched to overthrow Venezuela’s democratically elected government was dubbed Plan Zamora. And when its zero hour finally arrived, on the night of February 3, 1992, Chávez assigned himself the most difficult task: he oversaw the assault against the presidential palace in Caracas, on which the success of the whole operation turned.

Ten percent of the military had enlisted in Chávez’s rebel army. On the day of the coup, the rebels seized military bases and other key positions across the country without much difficulty. But Chávez himself had no such luck. Military intelligence caught wind of his intentions, forcing him to alter his plans; then his communications equipment failed. These glitches didn’t inspire the confidence of his fellow soldiers. The broad majority of the armed forces declined to follow his lead. With dead comrades already lying by his side and the high command threatening to bombard his position, Chávez pulled the plug. He told the head of the armed forces, “It’s OK, my general; I give myself up.”

To encourage Chávez’s other battalions to surrender, the army allowed him just over a minute to address the nation on television, before taking him off to jail. Wearing his red paratrooper beret and speaking without notes, he went live at 10:30 a.m. on February 4. “Comrades,” he said, “unfortunately, for the moment”— por ahora—”the objectives that we had set for ourselves have not been achieved … now is the time for reconsideration; new possibilities will arise again, and the country will be able to move more definitively toward a better future … Comrades, listen to this message of solidarity. I am grateful for your loyalty, for your courage, and for your selfless generosity. Before the country and before you, I alone shoulder responsibility for this Bolivarian military uprising. Thank you.” The television networks repeated this address over and over, hoping to dissuade imitators. Instead, they made Hugo Chávez a national icon. Venezuelan politicians of the time never took square responsibility for their failures, and those failures were numerous— Venezuela in the early nineties seemed on the path to economic perdition. And the phrase por ahora” provided a rare cause for optimism.

Red berets quickly emerged as trendy accessories in the Caracas slums. Celia Flores, who is now a militant Chavista and member of the National Assembly, had been a mother without political passions before Chávez’s television appearance. “The next day, I began putting up posters to free him,” she told me. “I hadn’t really considered what I was doing. I was just moved, like I had never been before.”

With the aid of new comrades like Flores , pressure mounted on political elites to release Chávez. In 1993, Rafael Caldera, an old lion of Venezuelan politics, won the presidency, in large part by exuding empathy for Chávez. Three months into his presidency, Caldera freed him. Five years later, after campaigning in the same red beret that he wore on television, Chávez won the Venezuelan presidency. He bested his closest rival by 17 percent.

What accounts for Chávez’s decision to join—and quickly place himself at the center of—a left-wing insurgency? Sincere ideological belief surely played a part. The groundwork for his conversion had been laid many years before. A friend’s father, a Marxist teacher in his town, used to send Chávez home with copies of Marx’s writings, as well as biographies of Bolívar and the other nineteenth-century Latin American revolutionaries. “It’s very fashionable to consider Chávez an opportunist,” says the political analyst Alberto Garrido. “But if you look back at his biography and examine his writings, you can see that ideology is central to understanding him. He has deeply believed in a left-wing form of Bolivarianism for much of his life.”

Even so, Chávez’s ambition cannot be traced to ideological belief alone. One need not peer too deeply into his personal history to find the abundant and overlapping personal insecurities that drive him.

Despite his strategic acumen, Chávez has at times been susceptible to gurus, some of them charlatans, like Norberto Ceresole, the Argentine Holocaust denier. Chávez’s revolutionary beliefs reached full bloom under the tutelage of Douglas Bravo, a legendary guerrilla fighter whose manifestos recast Bolívar as a great hero of the Left. These gurus have succeeded in cracking Chávez’s notoriously hermetic inner circle because Chávez likes to create the impression that he is a cosmopolitan intellectual. His speeches and conversations constantly reference the likes of Galbraith, Tolstoy, Negri, and Rousseau. (To be sure, he doesn’t always hit the mark, confusing Thomas Mann and Thomas More, or citing the cultural conservative José Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses as a great leftist work.)

In fact, Chávez is a country boy from the interior plains. He didn’t see Caracas or the sea until after his seventeenth birthday. His longtime friend William Lara, who directs the president’s political party, comes from the same region as Chávez. Lara told me, “It’s like we’re from West Virginia or a place like that. We don’t have the same codes or cultures. City people know rock-and-roll; we don’t know rock-and-roll.”

When he was a young boy, Chávez and his older brother were sent to live with their grandmother, Rosa Ines, in a nearby town. (Their parents, primary-school teachers of limited means, continued to raise the brothers’ four siblings.) This early separation bred complicated feelings, even resentment, in later life; he once spent two years without speaking to his mother. According to his biographers Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka, when Chávez’s mistress asked him if he loved his mother, he replied, “No, I respect her.”

Chávez the child imagined himself as the heroic Bolívar, scaling the Andes to free an oppressed continent. He moved to Caracas hoping to become a baseball star. The need to be seen as a hero—to feel adulation—seems deeply embedded in his character. He must have been disappointed (and perhaps something more) to find himself in an anonymous military career instead. His psychiatrist Edmundo Chirinos told me, “The love of the people is a narcotic to him. He needs it, the same way he needs his coffee.” (At one point in his presidency, Chávez drank up to thirty demitasses each day.)

Like Bill Clinton, Chávez calls his friends late at night, with no particular agenda. After Chávez triumphed in the 1998 presidential elections, he telephoned the writer Ibsen Martínez. (In the early nineties, Martínez had written a program that Chávez adored, a popular telenovela celebrated for drawing attention to corruption and social inequities; they later struck up a relationship during Chávez’s presidential campaign.) Martínez recounted their conversation to me: “My wife picks up the phone. ‘It’s Hugo Chávez,’ he says. She didn’t believe him. But it was him. He said, ‘I’m calling from my motorcade.’ He was describing the situation like a kid. ‘I removed a black screen so that I can see my people. Look, I’ll put the cell phone outside and you hear them screaming to me.'”

The Chavista Society

Chávez describes his approach to government as “socialism of the twenty-first century,” a phrase borrowed from the German-Mexican theorist Heinz Dieterich, among others. This brand of socialism, its adherents claim, appreciates the failures of past revolutions, in particular the failure to create genuinely “participatory democracies.” Chávez, his intellectual supporters argue, has come much closer to hitting the mark, especially since the unveiling of his controversial new constitution in 1999.

Under the auspices of that document, the president can be recalled by a referendum, and the poor can launch privately owned cooperatives, subsidized by the state. Chávez has energetically promoted those aspects of the constitution that grant more power to “the people.” Many people on the street carry little blue books that contain the text of the new document. They read it on the subway and can cite its verses from memory. Seemingly every Chavista I met wanted to send me away with a copy. Even taxi drivers and maids have become constitutional boors.

The distribution of the blue books is a part of Chávez’s campaign to create what he calls a “protagonist” system—one in which the Venezuelan people have a direct, unmediated relationship with their leader. But there’s no mistaking the driving impulse behind the document itself: to concentrate power in the presidency while weakening those branches of government that might, in fact, mediate on the people’s behalf.

The constitution trimmed the legislative branch from a potentially obstreperous bicameral body to a more easily managed, one-chamber National Assembly, which can pass legislation into law with a single vote. It eliminated congressional oversight of the military, allowing Chávez to more easily stack the army’s top ranks with friendly generals. And it lifted an old provision that prevented the president from serving consecutive terms. Chávez now wants to further amend this rule, so that he can serve a third term. His most powerful political allies openly predict that he will remain in power until 2030.

Chávez’s democratic bona fides have always been in question. When he emerged from prison in 1994, he went to live with an old veteran of Venezuelan politics named Luis Miquilena. A leftist, Miquilena had visited Chávez in prison and smuggled a phone into his cell. In Miquilena’s small apartment, the two men could hear each other’s breathing as they slept in adjoining rooms.

That’s not to say they slept much. Miquilena would argue with Chávez late into the night, attempting to persuade his protégé to reject armed struggle. “Eventually, he came to see that he could succeed through democratic processes,” Miquilena told me, while smoking a long cigar in a wingback chair. When I asked him about his late-night bull sessions with Chávez, Miquilena (who has since fallen out with the president) replied, “Chávez embraced democracy out of practical considerations, not theoretical ones. He came around to the idea of participating in elections for a simple reason: he believed that he could win.”

To visitors, Venezuela hardly resembles an authoritarian state. Unlike Cuba , for instance, private companies abound, and a privately owned press goes about its business. You can sit in a café and listen to people loudly denouncing the president as an ogre. Chavistas will point to these facts whenever their critics begin to denounce the country’s anti-democratic turn.

But that’s just another example of Chávez’s shrewdness: he has led the country in a more authoritarian direction only slowly, carefully calibrating his repressive measures so that they are too incremental to trigger popular outrage. When his opponents describe the prevailing atmosphere, they begin with the “Tascón List.” In 2003 and 2004, petitions circulated demanding referenda to recall the president—just the sort of people-empowering action enshrined as a right in the 1999 constitution. Soon thereafter, a list of the petitioners’ names and national identification numbers mysteriously appeared on the Web site of a pro-Chávez congressman named Luis Tascón. The government began denying these petitioners passports, government contracts, and public welfare. Two years ago, in a statement that he later recanted, the health minister brashly declared that any ministry employee who signed the list would be fired, “because [the petition] is an act of terrorism.”

Media intimidation has begun as well. The Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, passed in 2004, allows the government to suspend stations that “promote, defend, or incite breaches of public order or that are contrary to the security of the nation.” The law has cowed the television networks, once devoted to dropping rhetorical napalm on the regime. Venevision, once a particularly notorious anti-Chavista bastion, is now known as the Disney Channel, for its increasing abundance of cartoons and bland newscasts.

By adding twelve new chairs to the twenty-seat supreme court, and packing them with loyalists, Chávez has begun to domesticate the courts as well. He proudly presented the new jurists like a trophy at the opening of the court’s 2006 session. With the president in attendance, the robed justices rose to their feet and began to sing a favored chant of their benefactor: Uh, ah, Chávez no se va” (“Uh, ah, Chávez is not leaving”).

Public opinion is far more deeply divided over Chávez than is the judiciary, and protests are relatively common. In 2002, the army high command grew nervous about the president’s feints toward a fully nationalized economy, and led a coup against him. The coup temporarily succeeded, and might have endured if Chávez’s would-be successor, Pedro Carmona, had not immediately announced the dismissal of the National Assembly, the supreme court, and all of the country’s mayors and governors. Carmona (now ignominiously known as Pedro the Brief) succeeded in spooking the public and prompting widespread protests—and the army reinstalled Chávez just two days after removing him (but not before an eager Bush White House had tacitly recognized Carmona’s government).

Since 2002, Chávez has purged the military of disloyal officers and stepped up his patronage of those who remain. He has backed off his rhetoric about confiscating private property, which had alienated Venezuela’s middle and upper classes. Perhaps most importantly, he has showered Venezuela’s large lower class with cash.

Chávez’s base resides in the ranchos, the slums that spill down the hills surrounding Caracas. Social scientists refer to the residents of these neighborhoods as the ” marginales,” and they exist within informal communities, often without police services, municipal buses, stores, or even running water.

While they are not politically monolithic, many marginales have an empathic connection to Chávez, whom they already consider one of their own because of his dark skin color and folksy demeanor. His references to Jesus—”If Christ were here, among us, right now, there’s no doubt that Christ … would vote for the revolution”—and his political style bear a striking similarity to those of the evangelical preachers who have acquired massive followings in the slums.

The prime conduits for Chávez’s support for the poor are programs that he calls misiones ,” another evangelical allusion. Chávez created them on the advice of Castro, and they mimic the Cuban approach to exporting socialism to Latin America . Castro would flood countries with resources intended to quickly heal social ills and demonstrate communist know-how. So if the poor can’t get health care in Venezuela, why not invite 17,000 Cuban doctors to live and practice in Caracas ranchos? Illiteracy? Chávez has sent a horde of teachers into the barrios.

All this spending has a tremendous psychological impact on the poor, who have felt neglected and cheated by generations of politicians. Chavista investments in the slums are obvious. For the first time, blighted neighborhoods have government-subsidized grocery stores, access to the Internet, and doctors tending to their children. These improvements have translated into palpable optimism. Some polls show that Venezuelans are more sanguine about their economic future than Canadians or Americans.

Whether this optimism will endure, though, is open to question. Spending has not been designed to produce sustainable results, and there is little evidence of any coherent social policy. Cuban doctors can’t compensate for the country’s ramshackle public hospitals. According to the government’s own official data, infant mortality increased in 2003 and 2004, the last two measured years. Over the course of Chávez’s presidency, the percentage of the population earning less than $2 a day has risen from 43 percent to 53 percent.

Today, Chavez’s desultory government spending and overall economic approach resembles the populism of the Argentine Juan Perón far more than any authentic socialist model. It is an incoherent mess, dependent on constant infusions of oil money, and is highly unlikely to lead to sustainable development for Venezuela. It is governed primarily by an age-old autocratic goal: the maintenance of personal power.

Chávez has always appeared more interested in “liberating” Latin America ‘s underclass than in actually fretting over the contours of the society that follows—the legacy he craves is that of a hero, not a technocrat. That may be one reason why so much of his attention now seems focused abroad. Perhaps his neglect of the Venezuelan economy will be his undoing. Perhaps oil prices will fall by half, which might destabilize his regime. But history suggests that oil-rich autocracies can often perpetuate themselves—through showy spending, selective patronage, and control of the military—for a very long time.

The Turning of a Continent

Chávez touts the importance of what he calls “pluri-polarity.” Implicit in this notion is that Venezuela will emerge as a new regional power to counter the United States—a promise that appeals to his ultra-patriotic countrymen and helps account for his domestic popularity.

There’s one obvious way in which Chávez could truly stagger the United States. Venezuela is an important supplier of oil to America, providing about one-seventh of its petroleum. Chávez appreciates the power this provides him. By touting plans to build a pipeline to the Pacific and cutting deals with Chinese and Indian energy companies, he creates the impression that he might someday cut off the United States—a move that could send American oil prices soaring as the country scrambled to find new suppliers.

But while the United States relies on Venezuelan oil, Venezuela is even more dependent on the American market. More than half of Venezuela’s oil exports head north toward the Gulf of Mexico—some 1.5 million barrels a day. Over the course of Chávez’s presidency, Venezuela has received billions of dollars from America in oil purchases.

Ultimately, not even a lover of Quixote dares invest too much hope (or cash) in preparing for a break with the American market. Nature has tied Chávez’s arms. Venezuelan crude comes from the earth in a particular viscous form that requires specialized refineries, the type that exists in Louisiana and Texas , not China or India. The country’s fleet of tankers is geared toward transporting this oil to the Gulf of Mexico , and can’t be reversioned for longer hauls. What’s more, Venezuela doesn’t just export its oil to the United States; it actually sells the stuff there in the 14,000 Citgo stations that the state oil company owns.

None of these obstacles is theoretically insurmountable, but the barriers are so high that neither Venezuela nor its Asian customers have gone much beyond daydreaming of a new relationship. Turning those daydreams into reality would require significant planning, and the United States could simply rearrange its buying patterns—oil is a fungible commodity over anything but the very short term.

But Chávez can still wound the United States by turning his region sharply against it. While Latin America doesn’t have the same strategic importance as the Middle East, America depends on it for trade and for its cooperation in stamping out narco-trafficking—both of which could diminish in a political environment where Chávez holds sway. ( Venezuela has allowed members of FARC, the Colombian narco-terrorist group, to cross freely into its territory, and a senior official within the Colombian government has accused Chávez of actively supporting the group.) And at a time when U.S. international leadership appears to many to have lost its legitimacy, coalition-building—for continued trade liberalization, for punitive sanctions against rogue regimes, for military action—has become both more difficult and more important.

Oil money is of course one source of Chávez’s regional influence. Last year, he signed an agreement to provide thirteen Caribbean countries cheap financing for oil imports. He recently bought up more than $1 billion in Argentinian debt, allowing Argentina to pay off what it owed to the International Monetary Fund. (Argentina will end up paying Venezuela more than twice the interest rate that it had been paying the IMF, but that seems of little importance to Argentinian President Néstor Kirchner, who said the early repayment will allow “freedom for national decisions.” Kirchner recently fired his economy minister in favor of a more leftist choice. His new foreign and defense ministers favor strong ties to Chávez’s government.) Chávez has also offered to buy $300 million of Ecuador’s debt, and is providing aid and lending to Bolivia. His spending is not altruistic: he is self-consciously trying to assemble a bloc of nations that can be set against the United States on matters of trade and international leadership.

But his regional influence extends well beyond the reach that his oil money provides. He has tapped into a deep vein of frustration and anti-Americanism throughout his continent, and is skillfully exploiting it.

Latin America is in the middle of a leftward swing, a reaction against the economic policies of the past two decades. These early-nineties reforms, known as the Washington Consensus, aimed to counter the continent’s runaway inflation and massive debts with free trade, privatization, and balanced budgets. But despite this spurt of neoliberalism, the reformers failed to deliver on their much-hyped promise of prosperity. Not only did they fail to alleviate the terminal problems of poverty and corruption; they also helped inspire the revival of a raw populism that many Latin Americanists had left for dead.

How far left will the region swing in reaction? Teodoro Petkoff, the editor of the Caracas paper Tal Cual and one of Chávez’s prime adversaries, has written a book called Dos Izquierdas (“Two Lefts”). Under his taxonomy, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva represents one of these lefts, which pays lip service to Castro but adopts a more pragmatic attitude toward economics and remains committed to liberal democracy. Like European social democracy, it ultimately seeks to humanize capitalism, not destroy it—a political program that could help Latin America correct the excesses of its neoliberal experiment without entirely undermining its core economic contributions.

Chávez, on the other hand, represents a more retrograde form of socialism. His belief in strong leaders over strong institutions, his preference for patronage over careful policy, and his mistrust of some of the basic elements of the capitalist system add up to disaster for government transparency, democracy, and development.

Which of the two lefts will eventually win out is unclear. Most residents of Latin America still believe that market capitalism is the only system that can lead to development, and Lula is more popular than Chávez overall. But there’s no doubt that Chavez’s approach is winning adherents. Chávez may soon have close friends running Nicaragua, Mexico , and Peru. Argentina’s Kirchner seems the junior partner in his relationship with Chávez, despite his country’s bigger economy and military. Chávez’s protégé Evo Morales has already won the Bolivian presidency, in part by following Chávez’s own model of anti-American rhetoric and populist appeals. Morales has promised to decriminalize coca production and redistribute land, and plans to rewrite Bolivia’s constitution this summer. Even Alvaro Uribe, the president of Colombia and America ‘s staunchest ally in South America, has appeared with Chávez in front of Simón Bolívar’s home and bashed American “meddling.”

Chávez’s performance last November at the Summit of the Americas, held in the Argentine resort of Mar del Plata, reveals why his appeals to the leaders and citizens of Latin America have been so successful. He skipped away from the awkward group photos with his fellow heads of state, and addressed a crowd of 25,000 anti-globalization activists gathered for a “counter-summit” in a soccer stadium. He wrapped his arm around Diego Maradona, one of the greatest soccer players of all time, who’s probably more admired than any politician at the official proceedings. “I think we came here to bury FTAA [the Free Trade Area of the Americas],” Chávez intoned. “I brought my shovel.”

He was playing a clever inside-outside game: at the same time that he huddled with leaders like Lula and Kirchner, he used the media to go over their heads and speak directly to their radical political bases. This tactic works well because most Latin American leaders still depend on support from their own radical parties. Their activist bases still genuflect toward Havana, and constantly lament that their presidents lack Chávez’s gumption. “They live in fear of Chávez turning against them, because they worry that their people might not take their side,” one U.S. State Department official told me. This dynamic has given Chávez the run of the Southern Hemisphere.

The United States hasn’t shown much deftness in tilting this fight between the two lefts toward pragmatists like Lula. Instead of acknowledging the shortcomings of Latin America ‘s recent neoliberal experiment, it has insisted on pushing forward with the FTAA—an agreement that has little chance in the current political environment. Where Chávez constantly announces new plans to distribute cash around the region, the United States continues to cut back on its aid packages. And while the Bush administration isn’t about to confront Chávez seriously, it often gives the impression that such a policy is in the works, allowing Chávez to bait the United States into verbal duels—battles that reinforce Chávez’s mythological version of himself.

This hardly makes him the second coming of Simón Bolívar. Nonetheless, there are unavoidable similarities between the two—including some that Chávez might not care to acknowledge. Chávez claims that his favorite book is García Márquez’s historical novel about Bolívar’s last days, The General in His Labyrinth. If this is true, he must know that Bolívar ended his life distraught and depressed. During his final years, Bolívar devolved from radical democrat to dictator. He both praised democracy as “the most sacred source” of power and proclaimed that “necessity recognizes no laws.” When Gran Colombia failed after eleven years of struggle, during which Bolívar himself came to embody many of the oppressive qualities he’d originally campaigned against, he dismissed the continent as ungovernable and descended into a bitter senescence. He died and was buried in Colombia; Venezuela , whose populace had eventually turned on him, had made him an exile in his final years. Chávez, despite his love of poetry, never seems to utter one of Bolívar’s most poignant lines: “Those who serve the revolution plow the sea.”

Historically, Latin American revolution has proved to be just as futile as Bolívar imagined. Because of its peculiar political temperament, the region has swung back and forth on a dialectical rope between socialism and authoritarianism, occasionally stopping, mid-swing, on governments that combine the worst attributes of both. But in recent decades, the region looked like it might finally transcend this pattern of manic change. Widespread adoption of liberal-democratic governance and an embrace of market capitalism seemed to bring relative prosperity and genuine stability within grasp.

Chávez has the potential to disrupt this progress and revive Latin America’s old political habits. According to a recent poll, only about half of the region’s citizens—including minorities in Bolivia, Colombia , Ecuador, Peru , and Brazil—now believe that democracy is always the best form of government. Latin America is vulnerable, and Chávez has provided a blueprint not just for harnessing anti- Americanism but for the slow consolidation of power. Along the way, he may succeed in baiting the United States into a rhetorical fight that it can’t win, and impeding its international leadership. But ultimately, the United States will not be the biggest loser in the battle Chávez is waging. It will never suffer nearly as much as the people of the continent he dreams of liberating.