Chavez Puts Venezuela at Odds with the U.S.

Hugo Chavez, left, stands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Hugo Chavez, left, stands with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the Venezuelan president's July 2006 visit to Iran. Chavez vowed to stand with Iran against United States pressure and called Ahmadinejad his "brother." Marcelo Garcia/Miraflores/epa/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Marcelo Garcia/Miraflores/epa/Corbis
Venezuela i i

Venezuela is one of the five founding members of OPEC, and profits from the government-controlled oil sector account for one-third of Venezuela's Gross Domestic Product. Doug Beach hide caption

itoggle caption Doug Beach
Venezuela

Venezuela is one of the five founding members of OPEC, and profits from the government-controlled oil sector account for one-third of Venezuela's Gross Domestic Product.

Doug Beach
Hugo Chavez speaks at a rally in Caracas i i

Hugo Chavez speaks at a rally in Caracas on Feb. 5, 2004, rousing the crowd by saying his rise to power represented a battle against the "dictatorship" of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Miraflores Palace/epa/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Miraflores Palace/epa/Corbis
Hugo Chavez speaks at a rally in Caracas

Hugo Chavez speaks at a rally in Caracas on Feb. 5, 2004, rousing the crowd by saying his rise to power represented a battle against the "dictatorship" of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Miraflores Palace/epa/Corbis

A Leftist's Rise to Power

• Hugo Chavez, a career military officer, led a failed coup in 1992 against former President Carlos Andres Perez, whose 1989 agreement to cut domestic spending with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) led to widespread hardship for the nation's poor after decades of relative affluence.

• Even though his coup attempt failed and Chavez spent two years in jail, his new political party — the Movimiento Quinta Republica — gained political ground with Venezuela's poor. Chavez was elected president in 1998.

• Almost immediately after taking office, Chavez ordered two new elections to create a governing body that would forge a new constitution. Chavez used the new group's power to make a "clean sweep" of judges and legislators who opposed his reforms. Chavez was re-elected president in 2000.

• In April 2002, a union strike led to all-out battles on the streets of Caracas between forces loyal to Chavez and his political opponents. Chavez was taken into custody by his own military, and most of his reforms were ordered reversed or nullified. The Bush administration rushed to support the new government. But just days later, soldiers loyal to Chavez freed their president and ended the coup. Chavez accused the White House of helping to orchestrate the failed coup.

• In 2004, opponents tried to topple Chavez again — this time, using legal moves to call for a recall election. That effort failed, and a jubilant Chavez vowed to ramp up his policies against poverty and "imperialism." Chavez faces re-election in December.

• In the past two years, Chavez has visited Iran, China, Russia, Syria and other nations with the potential to be military or economic rivals to the United States. He recently warned his countrymen of a U.S.-led invasion.

Sources: Encyclopedia Brittanica, CIA Factbook, Associated Press

Hugo Chavez is seen by many to be the ideological successor to Cuban leader Fidel Castro

Hugo Chavez is seen by many to be the ideological successor to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, seen here in a 2005 visit to Venezuela to discuss sharing the nation's vast oil resources with other Caribbean nations. Miraflores Palace/Reuters/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Miraflores Palace/Reuters/Corbis
Hugo Chavez as seen through a television camera during his weekly broadcast of 'Alo Presidente' i i

Hugo Chavez as seen through a television camera during his weekly broadcast of Alo Presidente on Oct. 2, 2005. During the broadcast, he warned that oil companies must enter into joint ventures with Venezuela, or else leave the country. Miraflores Palace/Reuters/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Miraflores Palace/Reuters/Corbis
Hugo Chavez as seen through a television camera during his weekly broadcast of 'Alo Presidente'

Hugo Chavez as seen through a television camera during his weekly broadcast of Alo Presidente on Oct. 2, 2005. During the broadcast, he warned that oil companies must enter into joint ventures with Venezuela, or else leave the country. Beside him stands a bust of revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar.

Miraflores Palace/Reuters/Corbis

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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