Chavez Puts Venezuela at Odds with the U.S.
By the end of 2006, there will have been about a dozen elections across Latin America. And a significant trend is emerging: Traditional political parties are losing out to populist leftists.
Venezuela, led by fiery president Hugo Chavez, is at the forefront of this political swing to the left. He has taken up the mantle of revered South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, who led the movement to free the continent from rule by Spain and Portugal.
Depending on your politics, Chavez is considered many things within Venezuela: savior, lunatic, a man of the people or a base populist. Backed by bulging coffers of oil money, his aspirations are certainly regional and seemingly global.
The roots of his self proclaimed "Bolivarian" revolution lie in the slums of Caracas, where state-sponsored community centers provide food and basic medical care to the poorest of the poor, who live in the tin-roof shanty towns clinging to the slopes of hills overlooking the capital.
In most other countries, the rich gravitate toward higher ground. But in Caracas, the view is about the only thing the poor have. The shanty towns eat into the hillsides like sores, and many makeshift houses are washed away when the rains come.
"I support my president until the end," says Rosaura Rodriguez, a nurse who helps a Cuban doctor provide basic medical care at a community center. "He is the only president who has come from us, the poor people.... I support him, and that's the way we all feel here."
Chavez, who became president in 1999, is seen as the first leader to ever make the welfare of the nation's poor a top priority.
But some others say the government largess comes at a price. A young communist who calls himself Fernando says the free food makes the poor even more dependent on the government. "We're not giving them the tools to get the food on their own," he says. "Instead of giving food, what we need is to give them tools to improve their situation."
And then there are the so-called Chavez "foot soldiers" -- loyalists who act as neighborhood enforcers, ferreting out dissent and punishing those who criticize the president and his policies.
By most standards there is freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Venezuela. But national mood is volatile. According to Chavez, you are either with the revolution or against it. In terms of rhetoric, at least, Chavez has much in common with his archnemesis, President Bush. Divorces have even been blamed on disagreements over Chavez.
In his many speeches -- which, by law, must be transmitted live on national television -- Chavez mixes religious imagery with leftist rhetoric to rally support for his policies. He says he is a staunch Christian and often refers to Jesus Christ in his speeches.
Chavez may also be the only president on the globe who doubles as a variety show host. Every Sunday, he presides over Alo Presidente, which features singing, dancing and celebrity guests of the leftist persuasion. Harry Belafonte and Nicaraguan Sandinista leader and current presidential candidate Daniel Ortega have made appearances.
While he shores up support at home, there's little doubt Chavez is also hoping to foment revolution abroad, using oil money as leverage. During Ortega's visit to Venezuela, Chavez promised to send 10 million barrels of oil to the energy-starved nation. Chavez has also created alliances with Iran and other countries opposed to U.S. policies.
His supporters say the United States has been using its own economic clout to influence Latin American politics for generations, and that Chavez has just as much of a right to use his oil money to support other leftist leaders. But having the support of the Venezuelan leader can be both a blessing and a curse: The Chavez-backed candidate in Peru's presidential race was defeated, and ads comparing Mexican leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to Chavez saw Obrador plunge in the polls.
Chavez looks set to win in national elections in December, and has said he wants to lead Venezuela until at least 2030. Love him or hate him, this is a man who is more than likely here to stay.
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