Liberator or Castro Clone? Hugo Chavez's Oil-Funded Welfare Bolsters Clout, Anti-U.S. Vision
Byline: Sharon Behn, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
CARACAS, Venezuela - Sharon Behn reported this story from Venezuela from Aug. 26 to Sept. 16.
Flush with oil money and political power, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is firmly implanting his socialist - and anti-American - vision at home and buying influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
A former paratrooper who spent time in prison for leading a failed 1992 coup, Mr. Chavez delights in portraying himself as the Latin American counter to the United States, a modern-day Simon Bolivar - the 19th-century Venezuelan-born general who freed the region from Spanish rule.
He calls the United States a "terrorist state," has ended exchanges with the U.S. military and sold off Venezuelan financial assets in the United States.
"The United States is the champion of double standards. The United States government defends terrorism," Mr. Chavez said at the United Nations last month, while calling on the world body to move its headquarters to another nation.
"They talk of the fight against the terrorism, but they commit terrorism, state terrorism," he said.
In Venezuela, he appeals to impoverished masses with free education, health care and other social programs funded by his nation's oil wealth.
That, plus a populist message that stokes widespread poor vs. rich resentment, makes him untouchable at the polls.
Mr. Chavez was freely elected to office in 1998 and reconfirmed in the 2004 referendum. He insists that everything he does is in accordance with the new constitution, also approved by voters during his tenure.A close friend of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, he supplies other nations in the Andean and Caribbean region with oil at below-market prices, a largesse he believes will bring him closer to his Bolivarian dream of a united greater Caribbean region - with him at the helm.
"He is a revolutionary that wants to resuscitate an epoch that no longer exists," said political analyst Manuel Felipe Sierra.
"He wants to take on Castro's mantle as the anti-U.S. leader in Latin America, except that he is younger, and he has oil during an energy crisis. Oil is a political tool," said Mr. Sierra.
Mr. Chavez turned 51 in July.
At home, his government is taking over land and infrastructure after declaring age-old property deeds invalid or areas underproductive, broadening central control of the judiciary, the economy and the military.
To his critics, Mr. Chavez is leading a militaristic left-wing "social revolution" that is ripping his nation apart.
Politics - and the future of oil-rich Venezuela after decades of right-wing pro-business rule - has become a bitter feud, and Mr. Chavez appears to be winning.
He projects a relaxed, chummy approach, especially during his weekly television show "Alo Presidente," where he can appear one week dressed as a physician and the next in a finely tailored suit.
For example, he kicked off one recent show by announcing that he is opening a military hospital to the public, emphasizing that even the nurses and hospital workers had not been able to receive medical attention there before.
It is the kind of populist dig against former governments that ignored the underprivileged, which has won him adoring support among the country's poor.
"Life has changed a lot," says Benedicta Garcia, 59, who displays Mr. Chavez's framed picture on the wall of her tiny concrete house, right next to the pope and Simon Bolivar.
"Before, we had to go to a hospital, and it would take all day and night, just to lower a fever," says Mrs. Garcia, who runs a government-funded soup kitchen for about 170 people, most of them children, from her home.
"Now, when one of my grandsons was sick, they cured him, and I didn't have to pay for a bus, and the doctor is very nice. They come to the house if you need them," she adds, picking through a red plastic basin of black beans that would be served out to the neighborhood the next day. …