Not every visiting head of state would interrupt a breakneck schedule of top-level talks in Washington to play softball. But Hugo Chavez, 45, is anything but a run-of-the-mill politician. On a balmy late-summer afternoon last week, pausing briefly on the campus of the U.S. Army's Inter-American Defense College, the Venezuelan president swapped his business suit for a white pin-striped uniform. He drilled a single down the right-field line, came around to score and then took the mound in the bottom of the inning to face five batters from the college staff, giving up one run on two hits. Soon he had to hang up his glove and head for an appointment with James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank. Before the motorcade raced off, though, Chavez stopped to hear a chorus of Venezuelan mothers and children singing patriotic songs in his honor. "What more can I ask for?" he said. "To be here in Washington, hearing that music from these Venezuelan ladies- -that's happiness."
Chavez had better enjoy it while he can. His landslide election to the presidency last December was a stunning comeback for the cashiered lieutenant colonel, who spent two years in prison after leading a bloody but abortive military coup in 1992. His victory at the polls provoked worries in Washington and elsewhere that Venezuela might be sliding toward authoritarian rule, its faith in democracy destroyed by four decades of unbridled corruption. In August the fears took on a new sense of urgency when the president's supporters and foes brawled outside Venezuela's halls of Congress, and Caracas police barred opposition legislators from their own offices. As soon as the unrest had cooled down, Chavez flew to New York and Washington for last week's high-profile meetings with Bill Clinton, international bankers, U.S. lawmakers and foreign investors. The ex-soldier was eager to reassure any skeptics among them that he is not a closet dictator. "We say to those concerned people that a broadly and profoundly democratic process is taking place in Venezuela," Chavez recently told NEWSWEEK (box). "Venezuela is starting to get itself out of a jam and it is doing so in peace and democracy."
At home his posture is not so defensive. Venezuela's voters keep proving their unwavering trust in his leadership. In July they elected a special assembly to draft a new national constitution: more than 90 percent of the seats went to pro-Chavez candidates, all but shutting out the country's political old guard and effectively giving the president a blank check to reinvent the law of the land. Even the deepening economic crisis has not hurt Chavez in the opinion polls. Gross domestic product is expected to fall as much as 9 percent this year. Unemployment has reached 20 percent and continues to climb. Yet after seven months as president, Chavez is posting approval ratings above 70 percent. "He is one of us, and he is trying to help the people," says Gladys Chacon, 52, a lottery-ticket vendor. "We have a lot of faith in him." Some foreign critics would call it fanaticism.
His popularity has only been strengthened by the blatant misrule of past presidents. With the largest proven oil reserves outside the Middle East, Venezuela reveled in Latin America's highest standard of living after the price of crude began to rise in the 1970s. But prosperity turned the place into a kleptocracy--and eventually plunged 80 percent of all Venezuelans below the poverty line. Presidents grew increasingly brazen. Jaime Lusinchi (1984-1989) offended his Spanish hosts by openly bringing his mistress to Madrid for a state visit. His successor, Carlos Andres Perez, was thrown in jail on corruption charges before he could complete his second term in office. "Venezuela was long overdue for a serious housecleaning," says Eric Ekvall, a former Lusinchi aide. "Chavez is a breath of fresh air because he is absolutely and completely his own man."
In many ways the president resembles the rabble-rousing demagogues who dominated the region in the 1950s and '60s. …