The Oil Messiah Hugo Chavez Cements Control of Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is using revenues from the energy sector to bankroll what he calls his "socialism for the 21st century." The charismatic autocrat is trying to cement his hold on power in a bid to silence a growing political opposition.

By Jens Gluesing

A poster proclaiming "fatherland, socialism or death" adorns the military prison in Los Teques, a suburb of the Venezuelan capital Caracas. Relatives of the prisoners throng the stairs that lead to the cell wing. The soldiers poke holes in meat pies, cakes and other small presents, looking for cell phones and weapons.

The most famous prisoner in the country is held in a spacious cell on the third floor. General Raul Isaias Baduel, 54, used to be defense minister and commander-in-chief of the army. Now he eagerly accepts a couple of newspapers that his guards have allowed through. He has no access to telephones or the Internet.

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Photo Gallery: An Autocrat for the 21st Century

Five months ago, a group of armed men waylaid him near his home. When he tried to use his mobile phone to call for help, one of the assailants pressed a pistol against his forehead. He was driven in an unmarked vehicle to a base where his captors identified themselves as members of the military intelligence agency.

The state prosecutor alleges that after Baduel stepped down as defense minister two years ago, he embezzled the equivalent of $100,000 (€70,000) from state coffers. The soldiers who can allegedly substantiate these accusations have yet to make a statement. A court hearing has been postponed because the judge is allegedly ill. "I'm a political prisoner," says the general. He holds an old friend of his responsible for his arrest: President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias.

A Cunning Populist

Back when they were young soldiers, the two friends vowed to "break the chains of the oligarchy" to allow the Venezuelan people to lead a free and just life. They took this oath in December 1982 under a centuries-old tree, under which South America's 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar is said to have once rested. It was the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution and Hugo Chavez's rise to power.

It has been a rocky road to the top. After a failed coup and two years in prison, Chavez achieved his objective when he won democratic elections in December 1998. Today, more than a decade later, the 55-year-old Chavez is primarily concerned with cementing his autocratic hold on power.

The young hothead has become a cunning populist who rules by plebiscite. Chavez has won nearly 10 elections and referendums (and lost one, two years ago, that would have given him the possibility of indefinite re-election). His regime has split families and destroyed friendships. He has caused tens of thousands of Venezuelans to leave the country and live abroad.

By now the caudillo is ruling the country as if it were his private hacienda. He prefers to exert his influence via television. On Sundays all channels have to broadcast his self-aggrandizing one-man live show, "Aló Presidente," along with a shorter edition that goes out a number of times each week. All official appearances also have to be broadcast, easily giving Chavez 20 hours of air time each week.

Folks Songs and Jokes

On his TV show, Chavez entertains his audience with folk songs and coarse jokes. He comments on the worldwide political situation and reads from Bolivar's works. He dismisses and appoints ministers on live television, and advertises cell phones and shampoos produced by nationalized companies. He recounts his bordello visits as a young soldier and pokes fun at the whiskey consumption of his fellow Venezuelans. When a caller complains that the state hospitals are overcrowded, he promises: "Don't worry, I'll send over my personal physician." And he sends him.

The monologues last for up to eight hours. He seems to have inexhaustible reserves of energy. When Chavez recently canceled half of the anniversary show of "Aló Presidente," which had been planned to last four days, many Venezuelans speculated that there must be a political crisis. Three days later, Chavez returned to the airwaves with a puffy face, after reportedly suffering from indigestion. His opponents believe that he uses drugs to maintain his edge.

His televised appearances have recently become unusually aggressive. Chavez has assumed a more confrontational tone, deriding political opponents as "enemies" who should be "destroyed." Like his great idol Fidel Castro, when it comes to political confrontations, he always thinks in military terms.


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