Hugo Chavez Divides World Opinion. but Who Is He, and What Is He Up to in Britain?
Howden, Daniel, The Independent (London, England)
Not surprisingly for a man who divides the world, Hugo Chavez is greeted as a saviour or a saboteur wherever he goes. The Venezuelan President seems immune to nuance and perfectly able to reduce the world to Chavistas or to Descualdos, the "squalid ones", as his supporters dismiss those who try to depose him.
European and Latin American leaders gathering in Vienna yesterday to deal with the detail of trade and energy policy, were quickly reduced to a sideshow. Mr Chavez, the high priest of political theatre, knows howto draw and hold the spotlight.
Even a bikini-clad Greenpeace protester who burst into a group photo couldn't steal the show. Like a pop star indulging a fan, Mr Chavez told reporters he had no idea what she was complaining about but she was very pretty, so "I blew her a kiss". It will be no different when he arrives in London tomorrow.
Before Downing Street had the chance to snub him, Mr Chavez announced that he would not be paying a call on Tony Blair, but would be the guest of honour at a banquet hosted by the only politician in London one-tenth as colourful as him: the Mayor, Ken Livingstone.
To his critics, who are legion, the former army officer is a clear and present danger. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, has likened him to Hitler, and JohnNegroponte, the veteran of CIA counter-insurgency operations in Honduras and now the US's supreme spy, has accused him of "spending considerable sums involving himself in the political and economic life of other countries", when he should be focusing on troubles at home.
Like so much of the criticism which is thrown at him, it burnishes his reputation among his supporters and leaves the critics exposed to the charge of hypocrisy. A poster boy for the international left, who like their heroes larger than life, he delights in tweaking the nose of an irritable superpower.
The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, calls him the "most dangerous man in the region". This is a mantle he has gleefully assumed as he has set about a political project naturally suited to his talents: getting under people's skin.
With his coffers swollen by a surge in oil prices - Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest exporter of crude - Mr Chavez has poured billions into his regional neighbours in aid and trade and styled himself as a latter-day liberator of Latin America.
The US, appalled at the emergence of an oil-rich, visceral critic in its own backyard, has set about demonising him as a dictator in the making. What they cannot accuse the boy from the barrio of being is a fake. The son of Caracas schoolteachers, he is, like most Venezuelans, a mixture of Native American, African and European descent. He looks like what he is, a man of the people.
Given an education by the army, Mr Chavez has displayed a magpie's eye for the shinier ideas of revolutionary and social democratic thinking. From Simon Bolivar to Mao Zedong, through the more obvious route of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, he has arrived at what he calls "new socialism". Few people seem to know what this means.
He has been both the participant in, and victim of, failed coups and his credentials as a democrat remain uncertain, despite holding and winning a dozen referendums. But what his Bolivarian revolution has achieved is a gripping narrative for a continent that was otherwise ignored. …