Is Hugo Chavez Insane?

Article excerpt

After a three-week, 15-country tour, Hugo Chavez returned home last month to a rapturous reception from tens of thousands of cheering supporters. At least, that's how the Venezuelan president seems to have perceived what others saw as a collective yawn from his countrymen. Not long ago, Chavez really could draw huge crowds and entrance them with his promises of revolutionary change. Nowadays, the stirring rhetoric and histrionics no longer work their magic. The 100,000 to 200,000 supporters his party organizers promised for a welcome-home rally were conspicuous by their absence. Despite the free buses laid on from all over the nation, no more than a few thousand die-hard followers and the odd passerby showed up.

The curious thing is that none of this appears to have registered with the former Army officer himself. "El Comandante" smiled and waved at the nonexistent crowds who failed to line the streets. Then, he challenged the opposition to a duel by demonstration: "If they put 10 million on the streets, I'll put 100 million," he boasted. That's four times the population of Venezuela--and about 20,000 times as many as showed up for the rally. The president, many say, lives in a world of his own. But is he really mentally unbalanced?

"He's a psychopath," claims Rafael Marin, secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action party (AD). "He shifts from states of euphoria to deep depressions." The AD has every reason to dislike the man whose 1992 coup attempt triggered the eventual downfall of an AD presidency. But a psychopath? "Our psychiatrists," Marin insists, "have compared the psychiatric profiles of people like Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin and Ecuadorean President Abdala Bucaram," who was ousted in 1997 on ground of mental incompetence. AD believes there is an urgent need to activate Article 233 of Chavez's new Constitution. It provides for a president to be removed on ground of "permanent physical or mental incapacity, certified by a medical board appointed by the Supreme Court, and with the approval of the National Assembly."

"None of them really believes this," counters psychiatrist Edmundo Chirinos, who has been Chavez's psychiatric adviser ever since meeting while Chavez was jailed after the coup. (He later won elections in November 1998.) "They won't find a single psychiatrist willing to say that the man is mad... He only cares about his concept of the world and what he calls his revolution. But mentally ill, he's not." Chirinos hastens to add: "Not because he is in any way unbalanced--but everyone needs help occasionally. …