Hugo Chavez. Among U.S. government officials, the name itself inspires undifferentiated disdain. Because of his political relations with Fidel Castro and Iran, his characterization of President Bush as the devil and his defense of Colombian guerrillas, U.S. officials see the Venzuelan president as the hemisphere's new bogeyman, an uncomplicated throwback to the clarity of the Cold War.
But with Venezuela consistently the fourth largest supplier of oil to the United States and with Chavez using the country's petroleum wealth to win friends and influence neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean, U.S. officials cannot dismiss him so easily.
Chavez's story resembles an overwrought Venezuelan soap opera an--up-by-the-bootstraps protagonist given to passion and rancor, shifting alliances and betrayals, dreams, protests, gunshots and at least three failed coups.
In fact, however, the story of Chavez's rise to power is even more riveting than fiction, and the man himself is more complicated than the international caricature that has developed.
Chavez was in the news earlier this year for brokering the February release of some political hostages being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and, more recently, for breaking diplomatic ties with Colombia over that country's spat with Ecuador. When Chavez leaped into the fray over a cross-border attack by Colombian troops that killed a guerrilla leader at a makeshift camp inside Ecuador March 1, some observers, including Peru's President Alan Garcia, were quick to criticize him for meddling. He is often accused of being authoritarian and undemocratic.
Journalist Bart Jones, however, says Chavez is simply doing what any world leader with spare cash does--Ting to win friends and bring other countries around to his vision for the region.
Jones, a former lay Maryknoll missioner, has come to understand Chavez's hold on the country from the point of view of Venezuela's poor. Last year, he published an ambitious account of Chavez's life, !HUgo!: The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution. Jones interviewed
Chavez extensively for his book, and said the Venezuelan president sees himself as the heir to South American liberator Simon Bolivar's vision of a united continent.
"Chavez's mission to spread the 'Bolivarian' revolution is a fundamental part of his program and his mission in life," Jones said. "He's trying to fulfill Simon Bolivar's dream of uniting Latin America, in part to fight the great monster to the north. He takes it very seriously and spends a lot of time promoting it."
In Jones' nuanced portrait, the iconoclastic president comes across as neither the savior sought by his followers nor the demon painted by his opponents, but as a well-read, self-made man.
"I'm not a Chavez proponent, but I am a proponent of fair, balanced, honest journalism," Jones said. Chavez's critics tend to forget, he said, that before the former military officer won the presidency, the country was ruled by a powerful elite that amassed great wealth at the expense of the impoverished masses.
Born in 1954, Chavez was raised by his grandmother in a mud-brick house with no running water or indoor plumbing in a dusty rural town on the Venezuelan plains. With few other pastimes, he developed a passion for baseball, a skill that won him admission to the country's military academy--changing his destiny and the country's.
As a child, Chavez learned that Venezuela's oil wealth benefited a "fortunate few," said Jones, who arrived in Venezuela shortly after Chavez burst onto the scene with a failed coup attempt in 1992.
Although Chavez was in prison after the coup, some of his allies tried again to overthrow President Carlos Andres Perez six weeks after Jones moved into the impoverished neighborhood of E1 Trompillo in …