Venezuela's Chavez Is a Mystery Man: Politician Likely to Be Nation's Next President

Article excerpt

CARACAS, Venezuela - He is unquestionably the most interesting new political figure in Latin America today, a man alternately called a "caudillo," a "crazy man" and a "communist." He will almost surely be elected president of Venezuela on Sunday, thus throwing to the unrevealing winds the country that has historically been the continent's most promising democracy.

Hmmm. Only one question: "Who really is he?"

"Got me!" the people of Venezuela seem to be saying, even as they apparently prepare to elect their handsome, charming "mystery caudillo," 44-year-old Hugo Chavez, to the presidency in this historic - and potentially dangerous - election.

When I entered the apartment home of Mr. Chavez and his wife and daughter at 8 a.m. one recent morning, two things struck me: the city of Caracas laid out mistily in the distant valley, as though it were somehow still unformed, and the beautiful primitive art works, two of them his, on the walls. When the comandante came out, he seemed himself almost a primitive art work: clear features in a handsome face, black hair and eyes, beautifully dressed in a dark blue shirt with white collar and red tie, and "smarts" that ranged between very simple and quite sophisticated.

"When our old military dictatorships fell in 1958," he began, as he pored over a large map of Venezuela, trying to show me the enormous wealth (oil, gold, mineral, land, everything) of his country, "there was an intense development. Millions and millions of dollars were invested. But what happened?"

What happened, as he and his "Patriotic Pole" people remind the country constantly, was not what people outside Venezuela thought they saw. The world saw Venezuela's two traditional political parties, Copei and Democratic Action, apparently sterling democratic models for Latin America. …