If there were an Oscar for the worst insults among politicians, Hugo Chávez and his team and United States President George W. Bush and his administration would share the award.
The Venezuelan president has certainly pulled no punches in cursing, slandering and humiliating the gringos to the north. He alternately refers to the US president as the "biggest terrorist on earth" and "an idiot." In Chávez's opinion, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's problem is her "fascist" orientation and that "she is sexually frustrated." He says that although he is certainly capable of helping out in that department, he isn't really interested.
In return, Rice has called the Venezuelan a "demagogue." George W. Bush calls Chávez a godfather of terror. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld likens him to Adolf Hitler. And Pat Robertson, the Republican televangelist and a one-time potential candidate for the vice-presidency, has even openly suggested that the CIA "take him out."
Chávez, 51, threatens to cut off oil shipments to the superpower, suggests that he might annex a Caribbean island or two and even mentions the possibility of forging an "anti-imperialistic alliance" with the Iranians. The US, for its part, conducts war games with its allies off the Venezuelan coast. These days, it's considered a good day in Venezuelan-American relations when Washington's ambassador in Caracas is pelted with tomatoes and little more than a sharp diplomatic row ensues.
With the exception of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, the charismatic politician from Caracas is about the only public figure on earth so intent on goading the Bush administration. But unlike the other two problem children, Chávez is playing with fire at an uncomfortably close range. In fact, he's practically in the superpower's backyard, with his country separated from the US coastline by only about 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles) of ocean. He's also doing his best to stir up all of South America against the United States and pull the Latin world leftward. Still, Chavez is anything but a powerless caudillo or an insignificant backyard politician: He rules an important state that is practically swimming in oil. Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and, with the exception of Canada's oil sands, has the most important reserves in the Western Hemisphere.
A dependent Washington
As if that weren't enough, the Americans are also relatively dependent on this antagonist on their southern flank. Only Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia each supply the US with slightly more black gold than Venezuela. The US derives 11 percent of its oil imports from Chávez country, a significant share in these days of shrinking resources. And all across America, people tank up at gas stations owned by the Bush administration's adversary. Citgo, with its 14,000 filling stations in the United States, is entirely owned by the Venezuelan government.
The Venezuelan president has been flinging new provocations at Washington practically on a weekly basis. During a state visit to China, Chávez encouraged that country's leadership to stand fast against "US hegemony." In Vienna, he turned his back on the European Union-Latin America summit to attend an alternative summit, where he was celebrated as the global left's great new hope. During a visit to London, he insulted British Prime Minister Tony Blair by calling him "Bush's poodle." Meanwhile, he praises Fidel Castro as a "bastion of justice" and proclaims that Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia will form an "Axis of Good." In mid-June, Chávez announced an upcoming trip to a series of countries, with each station along the way representing a slap in the face for the White House. The planned trip is to take him to Russia, China, North Korea, Syria and Iran -- for arms purchases, to sell oil and to enter into "strategic partnerships."
The Venezuelan president has been especially eager to interfere in the politics of neighboring countries. With millions in campaign contributions, Chávez played a major role in bringing Evo Morales to power in Bolivia, where the new president promptly nationalized his country's natural gas industry. In Argentina, he bought up billions in government bonds, making the administration of President Nestor Kirchner bend to his will. He has tried to tempt Brazil and the rest of the continent with cheap natural gas, to be pumped through a fanciful pipeline that, though currently only in the planning stages, could traverse South America.
Venezuela's president also happens to be handing out charity in the slums of major US cities. During a cold snap around Christmas 2005, he offered heating oil from his own reserves at half price to the residents of low-income neighborhoods in Boston and New York, and he plans to do the same thing this coming winter. Santa Chávez.
An idol of the poverty-stricken masses
Who is this man who, as the idol of poverty-stricken masses has conquered the streets of South America, even pushing aside the respective legends of Castro and Ché Guevara? Is he a hopeless but likeable idealist, a modern-day Don Quixote, battling windmills while targeting the World Bank? Is he the last true socialist revolutionary, a Ché Guevara with oil -- or merely an egomaniacal populist with a taste for dictatorship? What makes this man, loved by some and hated by others, tick, this man who demonizes the Bush administration and behaves like a dervish, all the while dispatching his supertankers toward Texas and Florida and coolly collecting the profits?
It's a perfectly normal Sunday in Venezuela. And just as on every day of the Lord, 52 times a year, showtime in Venezuela starts at 11 a.m. That's when the entire nation gathers in front of television sets, in kitchens and living rooms all across Venezuela, to watch "Aló Presidente." It's "Sabado Gigante" meets Castro: Chávez on live TV, five, six and sometimes even seven hours long.
On the show, the president meets with the people, in an improvised studio or on a market square, in a major city or a rural village. He responds to comments from the crowd and answers the questions of citizens who call in to the show, delivering monologues in between. He explains the global situation, talks about his dreams and reports on sexual problems. Sometimes he even helps settle marriage disputes on camera. It's Chávez TV, often banal, occasionally funny, but always an impressive spectacle served up by a politician who loves to tell a good story and manages to achieve a direct, though occasionally confusing, bond with the people. It would be extremely difficult to imagine George W. Bush hosting the same type of program, or German President Horst Köhler, for that matter.
The small city of El Tigre is the setting for today's show. Chávez wears a red paratrooper's beret, a red shirt over a red T-shirt, faded jeans and a broad smile on his dark-skinned face, its features as sharply etched as if they had been cut with a machete. I'm not one of those foppish bureaucrats in air-conditioned offices, the outfit suggests, not one of those major landowners who think of nothing but themselves, their luxurious villas and fast Ferraris. What I am, the outfit seems to say, is one of you.
With the cameras rolling, Chávez strolls through one of the subsidized supermarkets known as mercal that sell basic foods, which the government has installed in slums and in the country's poorest districts. "Milk, flour, corn, everything dirt cheap," the president announces triumphantly, holding a package of coffee under the nose of today's guest of honor. "Look," he says, "a Venezuelan product; we've even printed the first paragraph of our constitution on the package." The guest, Daniel Ortega, drenched in sweat and looking a little confused, holds the coffee up to the camera. But Ortega puts on a good face for his host's odd little game. After all, it's been said, Chávez is funding his election campaign. The leftist former Nicaraguan president and head of that country's Sandinistas plans to make a comeback this November.
Chávez hurries on, through a barrage of kisses and a flurry of words. He embraces a university graduate from one of the slum-like barrios, a woman who owes her success to "his" government stipends, he says. He praises Jesus as a social revolutionary ("I feel closer to Christianity every day"), Lenin as a politician ("He set things straight"), Cervantes as a man of letters ("If the dogs are barking at us, then it is because we are galloping," he says, quoting the Spanish writer) and, finally, ends up with his favorite historical figure, Simón Bolívar, born in Caracas and "South America's liberator."
Just as Bolívar brought together a large part of the continent against its Spanish occupiers around 1820, Chávez wants to create the same kind of unity against what he calls "threatening new occupation forces from Washington." He has managed to have Venezuela change its official name to "República Bolivariana de Venezuela." But that isn't enough for Chávez, who wants to transform all of Latin America into an anti-American realm a la Bolívar.
His mood on this Sunday in El Tigre seems almost mild compared to a recent performance, when Chávez, practically spitting with rage, rebuked one of his ministers on live camera. But on this day in El Tigre, his tirades against inhuman capitalism and the American devil seem almost rote. By the fourth hour of the program, he has given himself over completely to his role as benefactor. Whenever he promises something to a caller, his audience applauds. "What? You don't have drinking water in your community? That's impossible. Well, we'll make sure that changes right away. Now listen up, Mr. Finance Minister " He comes across as a doer whose main purpose in life seems to be to spend money on his people.
By the time "Aló Presidente" ends, the viewers are at least as worn out as the star. Since the country's key opposition parties boycotted the last election, there is no longer a single member of parliament who isn't close to Chávez. The president knows that he can't expect any feedback from that quarter. Venezuela's leading newspapers, El Universal and El Nacional, continue to voice sharp criticism of the president, proof positive that the country is far from a Cuban-style dictatorship of opinion. But Chávez has little interest in these bastions of the upper class. His instrument of domination is television and it's through TV that he rules the country -- with his personality show, for one, and with a media law that prescribes "social responsibility" and can degenerate into censorship at any time.
The president has few advisors, but his wider circle includes three Germans, all strict leftists: Carolus Wimmer, the country's delegate to the Latin American parliament and a veteran of the political movement of 1968, Deputy Oil Minister Bernard Mommer and Heinz Dieterich, an anti-capitalist ideologue living in Mexico. Chávez's closer circle includes two personal friends, with whom he meets "unofficially" but often: his comrade-in-arms, Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto, and his close friend, psychiatrist Edmundo Chirinos.
His enemies are men who are forming an anti-Chávez bloc for elections in December. Their defiant slogan reads: "This country only has a future with us." Anyone who wants to judge Hugo Chávez must get to know both sides.
A land of contrasts
Venezuela is many things. It's the country's vast, flat-as-a-pancake Llanos central plains, with its cattle ranches. It's the hot, humid tropical region along the Orinoco River, home to the spectacular Salto Ángel waterfall (the world's highest) and mangrove swamps filled with bubbling oil wells. It's Isla de Margarita, with its magnificent beaches and duty-free shopping, where the international jet set rubs shoulders with Venezuela's whisky-chugging elite (indeed, the place is so cosmopolitan that it is almost unrecognizable as part of Venezuelan territory -- so much so, in fact, that it is more aptly dubbed Chivas country than Chávez country). And it's Lake Maracaibo with its unwieldy drilling towers, darkening the horizon like a swarm of grasshoppers shoved into the ground.
But, most of all, Venezuela is greater Caracas, the capital, home to 6 million people -- close to a quarter of the country's population -- living in wretched huts clinging to hillsides, luxurious villas in the valley or high-rise forests in between. The city, with its eight-lane highways, drive-thru McDonalds, Pizza Huts and Starbucks Cafés bears a closer resemblance to Los Angeles than to Lima. And it's a city practically made for drivers, with almost no sidewalks and the world's cheapest fuel prices, with a liter of gasoline costing all of 80 Bolívaros (about four cents, or about 15¢ a gallon). Despite almost constant sunshine, hardly anyone drives a convertible and no one ever rolls down his window, not even in traffic jams. Caracas is considered the capital of violent crime, currently second only to Baghdad as the world's most dangerous city. It isn't rare for 40 to 50 murders to take place on a single weekend.
Most happen in the barrios of the poor, places where Caracas looks like an upended garbage can, where bloody acts of revenge and counter-revenge are committed in the narrow, dark and muddy streets of the city's slums. But the downtown area is also considered especially dangerous, along with its romantic historic square, named, seemingly like every major landmark in the country, after Simón Bolívar. When the grey shadows of dusk settle like a shroud over old walls in downtown Caracas, armed gangs take over the streets.
In front of the city hall on the main square, with its statue of a mounted Bolívar, old women sell pictures of the saints and portraits of Chávez. Sometimes they sell a combination of the two -- an image of the godlike president, surrounded by angels, distributing manna to the people -- St. Hugo of the Cooking Pots. From his office on the first floor of city hall, Mayor Juan Barreto, 47, has difficulty speaking over the din of traffic from outside. The secretary sitting next to his desk, who is as breathtakingly beautiful as any of Venezuela's numerous winners of the Miss World competition, seems at her wits' end. She manages the mayor's schedule, which is already hours behind. "As usual," she sighs.
Ressurecting a revolutionary past
Barreto walks into the room. A former novelist, he is a man of big ideas, not someone equipped to deal with the day-to-day problems of managing a city. He is, however, someone who can effortlessly quote some of the great philosophers -- Spinoza, Marcuse, Adorno. And what are his most recent political initiatives? The bearded mayor, charming in a teddy bear-like way, has just joined the president in putting together a CD for state guests, which will also be distributed free of charge in poor neighborhoods. The title is "Sonidas de Caracas," a collection of cheerful, frivolous and even a few sentimental songs, tunes that strengthen national unity. "Where there is egoism one needs solidarity," says the mayor, "that, at least, is what they say in the Frankfurt School."
Barreto, who is especially fond of discussing his friend Chávez, sends everyone out of the room who could possibly interrupt him during the next few hours. Everyone, that is, but a four-year-old girl, the secretary's daughter, who busies herself to turning the documents on his desk into paper airplanes. But she also focuses on his words as Barreto resurrects a revolutionary past.
He tells the story of the child of poor, mestizo village teachers, a boy who grew up in the sleepy village of Sabaneta in the Llanos, more than 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Caracas -- on a different planet altogether. He talks about Hugo the adolescent, who, as a nine-year-old, sold fruit from a cart in the village to help support his five siblings. And he talks about Hugo the ambitious student who saw only one opportunity to make it in a "white" society dominated by the descendants of colonialists: a career as a military officer.
Chávez loved the uniform and dreamed of a baseball career. But he also wasn't blind to the stark social contrasts in Venezuela. When the rightists, with the CIA's help, ousted the government of socialist President Salvador Allende in Santiago de Chile in 1973, Chávez began his political education, reading Marx and Lenin, and devouring every word Bolívar ever wrote. He quickly advanced through the military ranks, his primary career. But he also developed a second career when he formed an underground movement within the officers' corps.
In the late 1960s, Venezuela was still the world's biggest oil exporter and was one of the founding members of OPEC. President Carlos Andrés Pérez nationalized the oil industry in 1976, and for a moment it looked as though the standard of living of all Venezuelans was about to improve drastically. But Pérez distributed the country's oil revenues to his favorites, allowing a small, arrogant and ignorant upper class to stuff their pockets with oil money. The rude awakening came in the mid-1980s, when the oil price plunged by two-thirds and Venezuela slid into state bankruptcy. The political parties were discredited and price hikes for basic food drove Venezuelans into the streets, where bloody battles threatened to tear the nation apart.
In 1992, Chávez and his comrades-in-arms attempted to overthrow the government. It was a botched rebellion, but its leader quickly turned defeat into personal triumph. Arrested by the authorities, Chávez, speaking before live cameras, assumed full responsibility for the incident and, in a dramatic gesture, called upon his fellow rebels to avoid further bloodshed. "We have failed, unfortunately," the telegenic man proclaimed. "Failed -- for today."
Chávez was given a prison sentence but was permitted to receive visitors while incarcerated. For parts of the army and, most of all, for the poor, he became a messianic beacon of hope. After his release in 1994, the revolutionary met Fidel Castro for the first time, seeking inspiration from the Cuban dictator. Though impressed by Castro's national health campaigns, he had no interest in merely imitating Havana's rigorous state socialism.
He left his return to politics up to the will of the people. In 1998, after winning more than 56 percent of votes in a free election, he moved into the Miraflores presidential palace, becoming the youngest president in the country's history. He created special powers for himself so that he could pursue his "social revolution," and he convinced the parliament to adopt a constitution favoring the president. In April 2002, he survived a coup attempt organized -- "probably with the help of the CIA," according to the US newsmagazine Newsweek -- by the upper class, fearing for their last remaining privileges. After only two days, Chávez, with the support of loyal soldiers, resumed office.
In August 2004, Chávez's future stood in the balance once again when he was forced to submit to a referendum after a strike crippled the country's oil industry. Chávez won the referendum with more than 59 percent of votes. The opposition claimed that there was election fraud, but observers, including former US President Jimmy Carter, believed the election was valid. "My friend is and remains popular with the masses," says Mayor Barreto proudly. "That's because he pays attention to the concerns of the poorest."
$10 billion in social spending
"Misión Sucre" in a poor section of Caracas, one of hundreds of such government-run model facilities nationwide, is a collection of hastily built structures graced with gigantic wall murals of Chávez painted in the naïve style, portraits of slaves casting off their chains and "Venceremos" slogans.
Cuban doctors, brought here from the Caribbean island in exchange for cheap oil, attend to crying children in a small medical clinic. In a simple school building, adults write awkward-looking letters onto a blackboard. Those who participate in the literacy campaign receive coupons for the mercal. Female workers produce sandals in a small shoe factory, while others sew red T-shirts in a larger building.
Posters of Chávez are pasted onto some of the modern machines. "After all, he gave us the machines," says Amalia, a seamstress. "In the past, no one took people living in the poor areas seriously. Now we have Chávez. He comes from the bottom. He is living our dream." The factory, a cooperative, sells the T-shirts for $3 apiece to the oil company, whose executive level consists solely of Chávez supporters. The cooperative needn't worry about competition, even if its workmanship is substandard. Sales are guarantied, and the proceeds are distributed equally among the workers as their net earnings.
But this workers' paradise also has its shortcomings. Rosario complains that, once again, not much more than half the employees have showed up for work today. "I have to send offenders three written warnings before I can even cut their salaries," says Rosario, who was voted into her position as forewoman. And she can't even sanction seamstresses during their first year on the job. Rosario, clearly frustrated, wrote the following notice on the wall: "The company belongs to us. That means that whoever doesn't do his job is a user." But her words were ineffective. The only warning that works, she says, is one that comes from the Chávez political commissioner in the barrio. Those at the top don't want any trouble in their model business operation.
The president has pumped at least an estimated $10 billion into social programs in the last two years. How much of that money went up in smoke, and how much was wasted on unsuccessful programs? And some critics have asked whether the misiones, these slum-defying oases of a more just world, are anything more than shams in the Caribbean? That, at least, is what the opposition claims, calling Chávez's programs examples of naïve Robin Hood policy without any permanence. To make their case, they cite statistics showing that the gap between rich and poor remaining has stayed as wide as ever throughout Chávez's seven years in office. In their eyes, the president is more oily than anointed.
A patchy opposition
The majority of Chávez's opponents are wealthy business owners. They include a slippery neo-liberal named Julio Borges, 36, former politician, guerillero and publisher Teodoro Petkoff, 74, who is suddenly painting himself as the man of the center, and aging star attorney Enrique Tejera París, 85, who spends his days holding court in his opulent hacienda or his downtown office. It's a sorry assemblage on the whole, with its oldest member being its only significant intellectual force.
Tejera vehemently disputes that the president's social programs are the right approach. He is fluent in the language of the World Bank, despite the fact that Washington's neo-liberal concepts have failed in Latin America, making the poor even poorer. The standard of living in Venezuela, he says, can only be radically improved by strengthening private enterprise. While the economy grew by more than nine percent in the last year, Tejera adds, private investment has grown by all of three percent in the last four years. Chávez, he says, frightens away investors with his constant new regulations. "If the oil price drops by as a little as a quarter, he'll be finished quickly -- and the country will be ruined."
Tejera alleges that Chávez siphons off money from the state-owned oil company as he sees fit, he is creating a private army with his private militia and recently signed a ridiculous deal with the Russians for the purchase of combat helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. He does everything he can to stir up a fear of invasion, thereby gathering the people around him.
"Sometimes Chávez seems cunning to me," says Tejera, who can only expect to capture a few votes in presidential elections on December 3. "And sometimes I find him irrational, a dreamer. Indeed, the man probably belongs on a professional's couch."
Chavez and Bolívar
Doctor Edmundo Chirinos, 70, the psychiatrist and good friend of Hugo Chávez, has his office in one of Caracas's better neighborhoods. His waiting room is decorated with a poster of Sigmund Freud, a shiny golden globe and a fountain splashing in a peculiar artificial jungle. Two patients doze away in a drug-induced haze, while a third screams, with horrifying regularity: "Thank heaven, God be with us!"
The director of the Psicológica Clínica is an expensively dressed man. He gives the impression that every cell of his being is part of the upper class, but the posters on the wall in his office tell a different story, portraying him as an outsider and as the 1988 Communist Party candidate for president. "Hugo made it instead of me, but I helped him where I could," says Chirinos. "He earned it and our country is better off for it, despite one weakness or the other." Did he treat Chávez? "He was my patient and became my friend, and we still see each other almost every week." He cannot divulge any professional information, of course, says Chirinos, before promptly revealing the fact that the president and his first wife attempted to save their marriage in many sessions. Many tears were shed in this office, he says, but to no avail. And then the doctor goes on to deliver an especially detailed report on the special affinity Chávez feels for Bolívar.
Does Chávez really see himself as a reincarnation of the great liberator, who, disappointed by Latin America's people, turned into an autocrat in his final years? Is this relationship, this congeniality of spirit an obsession? After all, observers say that the president routinely has conversations with a bust of Bolívar.
"Obsession is a category from my professional world. I prefer not to use such terms," says the psychiatrist. "But Chávez identifies fully with Bolívar and his grandiose dreams. There isn't anything strategic or made-up about that. Even defeats such as in Peru -- where Chávez didn't support the victorious social democratic candidate, Alan García, but ultra-leftist Ollanta Humala -- are only temporary setbacks for him."
And what about his role as a symbol of the left and an opponent of globalization, as a new Ché? "Chávez enjoys this role and he has sorted things out for himself -- like every important statesman in world history. This is evident in his amazing energy, which enables him to work for nights on end. He is a man with a mission, and he would certainly be prepared to die as a martyr if it came to that."
To demonstrate the parallels to Simón Bolívar, the psychiatrist cites the work of a colleague who has collected everything that's been written about the character of the country's national hero. He reads aloud: "Honest, a gifted communicator, unreceptive to corruption. Someone who preferred to pursue difficult dreams than to deal with the hard realities of life -- this also applies to Hugo."
The psychological profile of Bolívar continues. "Confident of his power to the point of being manipulative, sometimes unforgiving, excessively self-focused. I also see parallels there." The psychiatrist finally sums up his thoughts on the matter: "I see two men who refuse to be deterred." But Chávez, he adds, has a far more pronounced, leftist political concept, which has developed into an independent system of government. "What should I call it ?" Chirinos searches for the right expression.
Chirinos isn't sure whether he likes the expression. But he does offer a professional caveat. "The term narcissism describes an illness -- and Hugo Chávez is certainly not ill, in the clinical sense."
There is a soft rustling noise coming from a small waterfall in the psychiatrist's treatment room. Soft music -- Frank Sinatra's "My Way" -- comes from hidden loudspeakers. Everything seems geared toward keeping things calm.
Chirinos says his goodbyes. "I've spent a long time thinking about which current politician Hugo Chávez could possibly resemble. This sense of mission, this certainty dispelling all contradictions, this Biblical language with its division into God and Satan, absolute good and endless evil. I can only think of one man: George W. Bush."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan