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, …