Hello Again, Mr President: Justin Webster Meets Hugo Chavez, the In-out-In Ruler of Venezuela, and Finds He Still Fears for His Life. and with His Army Opponents Saying He Is Supported by a Layer of Thin Air, He Has Every Reason to Worry. (Features)

Article excerpt

Heightened security around Hugo Chavez, the maverick president of Venezuela, is just one hint of the fragility of his grip on power, despite his dramatic and popular reinstatement a month after the military coup that ousted him from government.

Chavez is convinced that he had a narrow escape from death during the coup on 11 April, which left 17 Venezuelans dead on the streets. And he believes there are still plots afoot to assassinate him.

"In those moments when I was captive, out of contact, taken at night to an inhospitable place by the sea, I thought they were going to kill me. There are people who want to kill me, and I thought this was their opportunity," he confided later.

But when, after days of waiting and last-minute changes to our interview plans, I eventually meet Chavez at his official home, it is impossible to guess from his cheerful, confident manner that he still faces determined opposition, and even hatred, from influential sectors of Venezuelan society and the international community.

Allegations of Chavez's friendliness with left-wing guerrillas in neighbouring Colombia, just as the United States is committing fresh funds to the fight against terrorism there, as well as his cordial relations with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, have made him particularly distrusted in Washington. Immediately after the coup crumbled and Chavez unexpectedly emerged from captivity to resume power, the US national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, sent a blunt message of disapproval.

"I hope he takes advantage of this opportunity to right his own ship, which has been moving in the wrong direction, frankly, for quite a long time," she said.

Instead of appearing suitably chastened, Chavez is demanding that the Bush administration revise its view of him as the menace of the Americas: "They have been manipulated in Washington. They are the victims of lies. I hope that, after all that has happened, Washington, too, will realise that those who believe that I support the Colombian guerrillas, or that I support terrorism, are completely mistaken."

Chavez is clearly aware that his best weapon against American pressure is the embarrassing haste with which Washington was prepared to recognise an undemocratic government created by an old-fashioned military coup.

"There are at least two elements that I think it is very important to clarify to the world. First, I have proof that two officials of the United States armed forces were in the building with the coup leaders during the crucial hours on at least one occasion. I have the names of the two officials on record, at what time they went in and with whom they talked. This must be clarified," he says.

He also claims to have satellite pictures of a warship and a military helicopter inside Venezuelan waters, as well as images of two military aeroplanes which flew over Venezuelan airspace from the north. The US State Department has denied any part in the overthrow but, at the very least, it was on amicable terms with its orchestrators.

Much more of a threat than the Americans, however, are Chavez's sworn enemies at home. Rear Admiral Carlos Molina, a rising member of the military establishment, continues to predict his imminent fall. Despite facing charges for his involvement in the coup, Molina has called on Chavez to step down in order to prevent the country from sliding into civil war. …