When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez assembled his ministers
before a national television audience to give his version of the
capture of Peruvian fugitive Vladimiro Montesinos, it was vintage
For months, he had denied that South America's most-wanted thug -
suspected of drugs and arms trafficking to directing death squads -
had found refuge in Venezuela. Now Mr. Chavez was under pressure to
explain how Mr. Montesinos, former spy chief and top aide to
disgraced Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, had been able to
hide out in Caracas. (The Financial Times reported last week that
government officials here now admit Montesinos was protected by
high-ranking officials of the Venezuelan political police.)
But there was no sign of contrition.
Instead, he accused Peru's officials of violating Venezuelan
sovereignty with an undercover police investigation, while
participating in an international conspiracy to tarnish Venezuela.
In his public-relations march, Chavez showed once again the
brashness that propelled him from a youth of poverty to national
Chavez, whose childhood hero was 19th-century South American
liberator Simon Bolivar, rose through the Army and led a failed
1992 coup attempt before being elected president in 1998. But some
now wonder if the man in the red beret is fit for running the
Peruvian Foreign Minister Javier Perez de Cuellar termed Chavez's
recently televised discourse "verbal aggression" and called home the
Increasingly, Venezuelans in traditional power circles of
business, the media, or internationally connected civil activism
find Chavez's brand of leadership at least embarrassing, and, at
It's a style Sergio Dahbar, editor of the Caracas daily El
Nacional, calls "el guapo del barrio" - a term that might be
translated as "ghetto prince."
"He's charismatic, but the approach to people who don't fall
under his charm is confrontational," says Mr. Dahbar. "So far,
there's been no censorship, we're not in a dictatorship in that
sense. But he is very intimidating; it's governance through
Part tough guy, part charmer, part feudal lord, Chavez has a big
vision for his nation. He envisions a role as a countervailing
wind, buffeting (if not halting) the steamship of globalization and
American global hegemony, and offering an alternative to the
roughly decade-old free-market economic model that has often only
deepened Latin America's poverty.
But Chavez is finding his vision hitting a wall. His
accomplishments to date have been political: a new "Bolivarian"
Constitution - which offers him a chance to win a second term that
would stretch until 2013 - and a sympathetic Congress elected
largely on his coattails. Congress, in turn, has appointed a
supportive supreme court.
But few inroads have been made into a stagnated economy -
suggesting to critics that he doesn't know what to do.
That judgment fails, however, to give Chavez credit for the key
international role his government has played in giving OPEC new life
and keeping profits high for oil-producing countries.
Still, since Chavez won the presidency with 56 percent of the
vote in December 1998, the Venezuelan economy has shrunk further.
The 80 percent of the population that either is poor or has felt
its living standard retreat over the past decade is no better off.
High oil prices have given Venezuela, the largest oil producer
outside the Arab countries, a safety net. …