Click photo to enlarge
Venezuela President Hugo Chavez.
INSIDE THE PRESIDENTIAL PALACE, CARACAS, Venezuela — The small, ornate crucifix, about the size of a half-dollar coin, sat alone on a chair-side end table.

Not for long.

A bare hand quickly grasped it and put the crucifix back into the familiar pocket from whence it came a short time earlier and where it goes every day.

"I almost forgot my cross!" a sheepish president admitted after having turned around at the door and re-entered the room. The crucifix is an important link to one of his life's most dramatic moments, and one that had as much to do with guns as religion.

But that is a story from the past in the life of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The story he is writing today is the one that requires the world to read it.

Few people are shaping the world's contemporary political landscape as is Hugo Chavez. He controls one of the planet's largest oil supplies and has become the next Fidel Castro in Latin American machismo, a term not taken lightly here.

And while oil may serve as his trumpet, it is his charismatic and often dangerously unpredictable personality that serves as his drum.

***

So why should the average American care to know more about Hugo Chavez?

There are three big reasons:

  • Jobs.

    American firms have more than $11 billion in investments here, including billions from such oil companies as ConocoPhillips, Exxon, Chevron, Texaco and Shell, and millions more tied to such industries as food and automobiles.


    Advertisement

    Chavez put all such investors on the edge of their seats when he began his actions of nationalizing certain industries, or taking over private ownership by seizing control and making them state-owned and operated by the government.

    Such actions smack of old-style communism, pose a serious threat to private enterprise and freedoms, raise costs and risks for outside investors and thus, in the long run, raise costs for consumers who use the products of those investors.

    Furthermore, in the case of American workers who are employed in such fields as the energy industry, also at risk are jobs, both in Venezuela and here at home.

    Likewise for Venezuelans: More than 200,000 are employed by American interests, according to the U.S. Embassy here.

  • Peace and stability.

    Two weeks ago, the international police agency Interpol released its findings regarding investigation of a computer that Colombian troops found at a rebel camp hidden across the border in Ecuador. Interpol determined the computer data to be original and undisturbed by the Colombians.

    The seized data provides evidence suggesting the Venezuelan government was providing direct support to the rebels in their battle against the Colombian government. Chavez disputed the findings and called Interpol's investigation "a big show," and referred to the Colombian president as a puppet of the United States, hinting that Colombia was working to allow an American military base in Venezuela's backyard.

    Chavez is both rebuked and widely admired for his strong stands against what is perceived here as American imperialism.

    The military threats and political unrest in America's own backyard is something that greatly concerns American leaders, as Chavez openly embraces the talk that he is the region's next Fidel Castro, whom Chavez cherishes as a father figure and mentor.

    "This is an extremely difficult moment in the bilateral relationship," said Patrick Duddy, the United States ambassador here.

  • Oil.

    Somewhere between 10-12 percent of American oil imports come from Venezuela.

    Meanwhile, Venezuela ships more than 50 percent of what it produces to the United States, making the U.S. its top customer.

    Venezuela is a charter member of the OPEC organization that does much to influence the eventual final cost of fuel that consumers pay at the gas pump and for other energy needs.

    Should politics ever become so heated that Venezuela and the United States end their supply-and-demand partnership for oil, consumers would know it the next day. Prices already rising at a steady pace could skyrocket overnight.

    ***

    It would be a serious mistake to believe that Chavez is merely a self-imposed dictator.

    Many political observers instead argue that his election to office in Venezuela is actually legitimate, despite the uncertainty that he will ever be willing to give up such power.

    Alongside the crucifix Chavez carries inside his pocket each day is a miniature book of the Venezuelan Constitution. Chavez repeatedly pulls it out and holds it high in the air when making one of his passionate and most-often impromptu speeches; something akin to a Bible-thumping, circuit-riding preacher, of sorts, only with Chavez the mission is to preach populism.

    He leads by stirring the popular passion on issues that most motivate his people, not the least of which includes standing against that Yankee imperialism.

    Chavez, to the chagrin of the educated and business communities that threaten his power, thrives on touching the hot buttons of the poor and grassroots citizenry. This, despite much of the blame for extreme poverty and Third World conditions here in this oil-rich country being put at his feet.

    His persona, much like that of Castro during his heyday in Cuba, tends to mesmerize those suffering the most into supporting Chavez the most. It is an interesting paradox, but one not so rare in Latin American history.

    The traits of such a Latino leader are referred to here as machismo, and Chavez, despite being called everything from an idiot to a loose cannon by his critics, has plenty of machismo in the eyes of his supporters.

    Tough socioeconomic influences such as inflation, crime and poverty caught Chavez by surprise when he lost an autumn 2007 vote to alter the Constitution and acquire more power, but observers say it was merely a shot across the bow for Chavez, and he heard it.

    Observers feel he is regrouping his domestic political clout by handing out jobs and money to the poor who support him, despite bringing down production and efficiency; and by stripping away the power and influence of his political enemies, including control over much of the media.

    "I do not think Venezuela has seen even the beginning of the end of Chavez yet," said Eduardo Gamarra, who teaches at Florida International University in Miami.

    ***

    The presidential palace is surrounded and constantly patrolled by a garrison of guards who carry automatic rifles, and bullet holes still mark two outside windows as reminders of a U.S.-backed coup attempt against Chavez in 2002.

    During the work day, horns blow and people by the thousands pass along the busy hustle-and-bustle streets of Caracas just outside the gates.

    Inside, on a Thursday night after a long day in the spotlight, the flamboyant Chavez brushes off a group of Russian businessmen waiting for him in a parlor and he temporarily forgets about a flight later that night to Peru for a conference.

    He wants to talk more about his beloved Venezuela, about American politics, about baseball and about the man behind the name of Hugo Chavez.

    "He does things like this sometimes," an aide said.

    The palace offers a true sense of royalty, not the least of which includes large, canvas portraits of 18th century Venezuelan hero Simon Bolivar, whom Americans learn about as the George Washington of South America for his fight to win independence from Spain.

    Chavez often entertains his personal guests, who come from around the world, in a private stateroom deep inside the building. Tall, white Roman columns support the high ceiling; and elegant, white-cushioned armchairs seat the guests, including one for Chavez himself between a small desk and end-table, back-dropped by the colorful yellow, blue and red Venezuelan flag.

    "Just tell the truth," he says through an interpreter. "I just want you to say the truth; that's it. We have made mistakes; we have many problems in this country. But to say for instance that there is a dictatorship in this country — there is no evidence whatsoever of having a dictatorship in this country."

    His opposition from the media and private industry that were seized and so-called nationalized by Chavez would argue the point, as would potential political opponents who are not allowed to qualify to run for office.

    Yet, Chavez proclaims free speech under his leadership, and he points to the media that remains under private ownership as offering him the opportunity to debate. More often, he refers to the power of the people, bringing focus back to his populist style of empowerment.

    "It would be very sad if you can only hear the official voice," he offered. "It would be boring. Here, people are free to say whatever they think. Of course, there are rules to follow "

    ***

    Chavez likes to make it clear that his problems with the United States primarily lie with the Bush administration, not the American people.

    "When I speak about the United States, I do not refer to the people, to the citizens," Chavez said. "I refer to the elite, that is governing the United States."

    The problems he has with the governing elite does not include economic and cultural ties, he said, mentioning the likes of American actors such as Danny Glover, Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn, who he claims to have hosted as guests. Also political leaders such as former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have talked with him, and he had many telephone conversations and negotiations with former President Bill Clinton, he said.

    "When they come over here, they say what they like and what they don't like. And we still are friends. And that's what we want," Chavez said. "We want to be friends. And I hope that the new government — we can then open new space for exchange and discussion."

    The "new government" he refers to is the next American presidency.

    The Bush administration has admonished Chavez hard and often for his socialist style of government and his meddlesome ways in trying to influence regional politics. It regards Chavez as a direct threat to freedom and criticizes him for his use of rich oil revenues to promote his own power instead of doing more to help the Venezuelan people.

    A case in point is when Chavez decided to showcase his relationship with the president of Iran, another oil-rich nation that is the target of U.S. concern because of that country's anti-American propaganda and its support of America's enemies in the Middle East, including groups fighting American troops in war-torn Iraq.

    But for Chavez, the anti-Bush feelings are much more personal.

    It goes back to that April night in 2002 when armed mercenaries and opposition leaders literally came gunning for him.

    ***

    The resentment Chavez has of Bush and his willingness to antagonize him in any way he can comes from a personal resentment of what he perceives as Bush's efforts to have Chavez illegally removed from office, forcing him to face the frightening prospect of assassination in the process.

    Chavez is convinced that the American government was in full support of the coup attempt he faced, claiming that at least two American military leaders were among the opposition group that seized the palace and tried to force him to resign during a temporary takeover.

    Latin American countries had signed an agreement in 2001 that they would not recognize such takeovers, and they proclaimed that only elected governments would be recognized. The United States also agreed to that treaty, but Chavez said the U.S. was quick to violate it the next year by breaking its word and supporting the coup attempt against him.

    Chavez, a former military paratrooper himself before turning to politics, relived from his perspective the frantic events surrounding the takeover, including how the best advice ever given to him "I received right here in this chair, April 11, 2002."

    "The coup d'etat was already on the way. People were already killed," he said. "I only had close to 200 soldiers loyal to me." The opposition had many more.

    "I was in a dilemma," he said. "Should I resist the attack that was to come against us?

    "Should I go out on the street and join the protesters?

    "It was a desperate situation.

    "All of a sudden, the phone rang.

    "It was Castro."

    Chavez explained to his mentor that opposition leaders already were inside the palace demanding his resignation, and among them were representatives of the American military as well as from the Catholic Church. "It was a collusion to topple me," he said, claiming it was an attempt by the rich to seize power.

    Castro asked him a series of questions to help grasp the situation.

    Finally, Chavez recalled, "he said to me, Chavez, you are the only one to know what to do. I just ask one thing of you.

    "You cannot die tonight.'"

    ***

    Chavez said Castro's message was clear enough.

    "For me, I took that as an order," he said, adding that Castro told him, "Whatever you have to do, do it with dignity. But you should not die."

    He relinquished control of the palace, and a Caracas businessman soon after was placed in power. However, Chavez refused to resign. He was convinced that a group among the opposition wanted to kill him.

    They came to take him away by helicopter. "I said, that's it! I'm going to die,'" he recalls.

    That is when he was handed a cross, he said, and a priest told him, "Take Christ with you."

    Chavez pulls out the crucifix from his pocket.

    It is the same one he carried with him to what he thought would be his death that night, he said. He remembered holding it with a tight grip in the palm of his hand throughout the night as he awaited his fate.

    There was much confusion, including about who was to blame for the deaths in the street that day when the protests began to mount, leading to the takeover. Chavez was convinced he would be shot.

    But then, he said, a soldier recognized him and asked him if he had resigned as president. He told the soldier no.

    Later, a group of mercenaries with guns came.

    However, by this point, the soldiers loyal to Chavez had decided to make a stand for their leader. Guns were pointed in all directions, as loyalists and opposition fighters all took aim.

    "One of the soldiers told them, If you kill this man, we all die tonight,'" Chavez said.

    "Everything began to change," he said. Instead of killing Chavez, they elected to take him to an island. He survived the coup attempt, and as his supporters in the street and within the military got word that Chavez was still president, they rallied to his side, restoring him to power and sending top opposition leaders running for their lives in exile.

    "It was a miracle," Chavez said. "Thank God, I followed Fidel's order."

    ***

    Chavez talked for more than an hour and a half.

    He talked about baseball.

    He talked about his love of painting.

    He talked about America.

    He talked about Venezuela.

    He talked about family, putting his crucifix down on the table and standing to walk over to a collection of family photos, bragging on his children and grandchildren, and lamenting that he does not spend enough time with them.

    "There is life still after politics," he said, shifting into a quieter, more solemn tone.

    "However, I have this fear," he said. "I think I'm doomed because people accuse me of concentrating too much power.

    "But in the end, you are nothing but a prisoner here," he said, waving his hand to point out the tall walls of the room and pointing out the security all around him, the hectic pace of travel, the busy meeting agendas and the crowded hallways full of aides and cabinet members seeking counsel or giving advice.

    "I do this and I do it with pleasure because I understand my role," Chavez said, but soon adding, "Even if I leave this place, I will never abandon politics."

    The next elections are in 2012.

    It will be interesting to see if there will be anyone allowed to truly campaign against him. Many doubt it.

    Also noteworthy will be how Chavez tries to pull his countrymen out of poverty, how he addresses runaway inflation, how he continues to ride his oil revenues by exerting influence in other countries, and how he reacts to the next American president.

    During this night, however, Chavez is content to talk as if he is surrounded by close friends, and it is this turn of the switch from el comandante to old pal where he is best at charming his way to power.

    He shakes hands, says an extended good-bye, and finally heads for the door, a long night still ahead of him with the late flight to Peru.

    He remembers the crucifix he left sitting on the end-table.

    After all, it means much more than an empty pocket.

    It reminds him of how close the end came, but did not.

    And he lives to rule another day in Venezuela, while the world closely watches.

    Troy Turner is the editor of The Daily Times. He can be contacted at P.O. Box 450, Farmington, NM 87499; or at tturner@daily-times.com.