x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Venezuelan crude

Hugo Chávez has painted himself as a man of the people, but domestic critics are wary that he will never relinquish his democratically elected presidency.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

Like many self-important men of modest stature, Hugo Chávez has a weakness for being photographed in the company of gorgeous, willowy women. So, when GQ magazine hit upon the idea of commissioning the model Naomi Campbell to "interview" a series of world figures, Mr Chávez, who stands 5 feet 7 inches tall, could not resist the lure.

Miss Campbell did not disappoint in her probing interviewing technique. "Do you know Prince Charles?" she asked the Venezuelan president. "I like the prince," he replied, before adding rather ungallantly that he knew Charles now had "Camilla, his new girl. She's not as attractive, is she?" But on and on Campbell went, probing deeper to reveal that Mr Chávez thought Fidel Castro of Cuba the most stylish global leader - "his uniform is impeccable, his boots are polished, his beard is elegant" - and that he would be happy, in the manner of Vladimir Putin, to pose shirtless. "Touch my muscles," he breathlessly urged Miss Campbell, who in turn referred cooingly to Mr Chávez as her "rebel angel".

Even allowing for a certain self-mockery, it is possible to see in Mr Chávez's comments the forces that drive him and have shaped his political career. His historical hero is Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century revolutionary leader who fought against Spanish domination and by force came to lead Colombia, which then included Venezuela and Ecuador as well. But his modern political mentor is Mr Castro, in whose shadow he continues to strut the world stage, even though the Cuban is no longer in full control owing his poor health.

Some see in Mr Chávez's exaggerated reverence for guerrilla leaders a sense of regret that he never cut his own revolutionary teeth. Although his family was poor, he should be classed as bourgeois for his parents were both schoolteachers, albeit extremely poorly paid. Mr Chávez went to university in Caracas, but did not graduate, preferring to spend his time playing baseball, writing revolutionary poetry, and hanging around with his Marxist friends, trying to re-create Bolivar's dream of a pan-South American utopia cleansed of foreign domination.

Then he joined the army, ironically - given his ideological sympathy for revolutionary guerrillas - in a counterinsurgency battalion, and stayed for 17 years, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel despite his public contempt for the "decadent and elitist" political establishment. In 1992, he finally acted to fulfil his role as self-appointed champion of the working class and landless rural population, mounting a disastrously bungled coup, for which he was imprisoned for two years. But the coup gave him a national profile, so when he was pardoned and freed, Mr Chávez began to build his political base in time to win power legitimately in the 1998 presidential election.

He has proved a canny popular politician: he is a compelling public speaker which, combined with his dark mestizo looks, provincial accent, and flowery rhetorical flourishes, reliably rouses his country's enormous underclass against the ruling political and business elite. The great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, by disposition a friendly witness, was not alone in struggling to assess what makes Mr Chávez tick when he interviewed him shortly after he won the presidency.

García Márquez concluded that Mr Chávez could simultaneously fulfil all the expectations of his closest friends and bitterest enemies. In his article, The Enigma of the Two Chávezes, García Márquez wrote that during their time together he had encountered two entirely different personalities. "One a self-styled visionary who had been granted the opportunity to save his country. The other ? an illusionist, who might pass into history as just another despot."

Though Mr Chávez remains popular with his political base of the poor and landless, he has consolidated his rule in the manner of a classic Latin American despot, rather as García Márquez foresaw 11 years ago. His tactics are crude and familiar to observers of the region. The Venezuelan media have been ruthlessly bullied, opposition newspapers and broadcast outlets suppressed, while state television shamelessly lauds his every pronouncement. He even has his own weekly show, in which he lays down his plans for the future, occasionally making policy live on air.

Meanwhile, he has set about gerrymandering the constitution, widening his presidential powers, and moving to remove the constitution's term limits. Re-elected for the third time in 2006, it seems certain that Mr Chávez intends to remain in office until the day he is removed at the wrong end of the barrel of a gun. Much of his popular appeal with the underclass rests on his delight in tweaking Uncle Sam's tail.

Mr Chávez flaunts his contempt for the United States, always referring to it as "The Empire", and suggesting he is engaged in permanent campaign to keep its wickedness at bay. For its part, Washington has never done a great deal to correct the general impression that it was somehow behind a 2002 coup which, very briefly, unseated Mr Chávez. On occasions he referred to George W Bush as a "donkey", a "coward" and a "drunkard". He has toned down his anti-American abuse since Barack Obama's inauguration in January, presumably because he realises that attacks on the American gringos lose some of their popular appeal when a black man inhabits the White House.

Many Chávez watchers still savour his humiliation two years ago at the hands of the King of Spain. At a summit meeting of Spanish-speaking nations in Chile, Mr Chávez repeatedly interrupted Spain's prime minister until King Juan Carlos snapped: "Why don't you shut up?" The royal rebuke became an instant YouTube sensation, and half a million Spaniards downloaded it as a mobile phone ringtone. Mr Chávez's capricious style and global grudges would not interest the rest of the world but for Venezuela's immense good fortune of sitting on the world's fifth largest reserves of oil. Caracas supplies 13 per cent of US oil imports, so Washington must perforce take notice of Mr Chávez's occasional threats to turn off the taps.

But that is not the only way he uses the oil industry - most of which he has nationalised and placed under the control of political cronies - to underpin his aspiration to serve as champion of the world's underclass. Cuba receives millions of barrels of oil a year to insulate it from the US trade embargo, and in return Havana provides thousands of Cuban doctors and social workers to serve in the vast shanty towns that ring Caracas and most of Venezuela's other cities.

Mr Chávez loves to travel in his spanking new presidential Airbus A-319 with its white leather interior, embossed presidential seal on his seat, and pictures of South American revolutionary heroes of the 19th century, including Bolivar. This week he has been in Minsk, forging ties of extravagant bonhomie with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, seemingly for no reason other than that Lukashenko is dismissed by Washington, London and Berlin as "Europe's last dictator" and a dreary Marxist relic of the Cold War.

On his arrival, Mr Chávez declared before the cameras: "Greetings from the axis of evil, from the leaders of Cuba, Algeria, Libya and Turkmenistan!", a reference to Mr Bush's famous grouping of rogue terrorist states in 2002, though none of the countries Mr Chávez mentioned was on that list. But he had been to Iran, which is part of that reputed axis, where he signed an oil deal to provide Tehran with refined petrol because its own production infrastructure has become so unreliable. A similar arrangement had been reached with London's left-wing former mayor Ken Livingstone, but the contract was immediately torn up by his Conservative successor, Boris Johnson.

On Monday, Mr Chávez showed again that he cannot resist a chance to mingle within the global celebrity culture when he made a much anticipated "surprise" visit to the Venice Film Festival, where Oliver Stone's documentary film about the American media's supposed vilification of Mr Chávez had its premiere. Stone's film South of the Border features most South American leaders praising Mr Chávez's leadership credentials while dismissing Washington's concerns about his increasingly autocratic impulses.

From the scenes on the Venetian red carpet, it became clear Mr Chávez and Stone have certainly formed a bond. In the movie, the president addresses Stone as "my brother". "I see him as a soldier," Stone said, praising him for his self-discipline. "Most guys get weak, but he's gonna die with his boots on." The veteran Hollywood director no doubt meant that comment as a compliment, but Mr Chávez's domestic opponents might instead see it as terrible proof of their darkest fears that this champion of the people also sees himself as president-for-life.

* The National