Hugo Chavez Helps Drug Barons, Backs the Taliban, Jails His Enemies . . . and Hates the Middle Class. Meet Red Ken's New Best Friend

Article excerpt

Byline: JONATHAN FOREMAN

VENEZUELAN President Hugo Chavez was met by a welcome rally of supporters yesterday at the beginning of a two-day visit. Today he will have lunch with London mayor Ken Livingstone and meetings with Leftwing MPs and trade unions.

The authoritarian South American has become an icon for the Left - but the truth is that he has exploited his country's oil wealth to launch an onslaught on democracy. . .

LONDON'S mayor, Ken Livingstone, has befriended some unlikely and unpleasant people over the years, from the Provisional IRA to enthusiasts for Islamist suicide bombing.

But few are as bizarre as Hugo Chavez, the beret-wearing, coup-launching President of Venezuela, whom he is hosting on his current two-day visit to Britain.

Chavez has hit global headlines by supporting Iran's dreams of building nuclear weapons, by befriending North Korea, by subsidising Castro's creaking but still vicious Cuban dictatorship, by cosying up to the Taliban - after September 11 - and by offering a haven to Colombia's narco-terrorists.

In 2001 Chavez paid state visits to Libya, Iran and Iraq, where he was feted by Saddam Hussein. In fact, name a nasty anti-Western regime that supports terrorism or seeks nuclear weapons - or both - and Chavez has probably come out in its favour.

He has also praised Zimbabwe's racist dictator Robert Mugabe as 'a true freedom fighter', called Tony Blair an 'ally of Hitler' for his alliance with George W. Bush, and urged the 'return' of the Falkland Islands to Argentina.

He has threatened the Dutch- owned islands of Aruba and Curacao, and attacked Halloween as an American plot to make his people afraid. At one point he called the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal 'the greatest living Venezuelan'.

Chavez, 51, has become the latest addition to the romantic Leftwing pantheon that includes Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and the Sandinista boss Daniel Ortega - murderers all. Chavez himself is actually more like Juan and Eva Peron of Argentina in his populism and in the clever way he has turned Venezuela's democracy into a virtual one party state.

In doing so, he has also endeared himself to Left-wingers abroad in one other significant way: with an all-out war on the middle class.

Though democratically elected in 1998, this former army colonel has personal control of the executive, the judiciary, armed forces, education and the oil industry (he indirectly controls the Press through intimidation and self-censorship) all but ensuring his continuation in power for years to come.

BESIDES the fact that it's the world's fifth-largest oil producer (the biggest outside the Middle East), Venezuela has traditionally been more democratic, stable and prosperous than most Latin American countries. In 1971, it had a higher per capita income than Japan.

And unlike many countries in the region, it has - or had - a large middle class. This middle class continued to grow despite socialist policies followed in the Seventies when the oil industry was nationalised, and the shock to its economy when oil prices plunged during the Eighties and Nineties.

But under Chavez professionals, managers and executives have been sacked and replaced with political supporters or army officers. He actively foments popular hatred of the middle classes and upper classes, blaming them, along with America, capitalism and globalisation, for poverty and everything else that is wrong with the country.

Many middleclass people believe that this has contributed to the increase in already sky-high rates of violent crime, especially robbery and kidnapping.

Mass demonstrations and strikes have often been met with brutal violence.

Now business owners and shopkeepers are beginning to emigrate in huge numbers. Though sometimes officials make it hard for them to get passports, there are long lines outside the Spanish, British, U. …