Original rabble rouser now face of crumbling establishment

By Rory Carroll

In some ways, it is just like old times. Huge crowds mob the presidential candidate as he swings through dusty villages and towns promising a new Venezuela.

They surround his bus, chanting his name, and when he emerges they scream and surge forward, desperate to embrace him. Many clutch notes - handwritten pleas for a job, a house, an operation - and if they manage to slip them into his hands or pockets they near explode with joy.

"He knows things can't go on like this. He knows we're ready for a change," Josmir Meza, 25, a student, shouted over cheers.

The trouble for Hugo Chavez is that he is no longer that candidate.

In 1998, he was an insurgent outsider, a young, athletic campaigner who promised to overthrow the established order and "refound" Venezuela. He was unstoppable and roared to victory.

Fourteen years later, however, as he seeks a third term, it his youthful challenger, Henrique Capriles, 40, who electrifies the crowds.

Chavez, 58, in contrast, is an ailing, elusive figure who now represents the establishment. He wishes not to storm the presidential palace, Miraflores, a pink, neocolonial spread in downtown Caracas, but to keep it.

Having dominated Venezuela like a colossus, leading his socialist revolution to consecutive electoral landslides, he is facing the electoral fight of his life.

With both sides depicting the vote as an existential test to vanquish or save the unique political and economic experiment known as chavismo, the stakes could scarcely be higher.

If Chavez loses, his movement will almost certainly fracture, dismaying foreign supporters who hailed the "Bolivarian revolution" as a leftwing showcase. If he wins, critics at home and abroad will warn of a slide into autocracy and dysfunction.

Either way, it will be another chapter in the great drama that is the life of Chavez.

How a boy from a humble family, the second son of schoolteacher parents, rose to become not just president but a global figure simultaneously adored and reviled is a remarkable tale.

By the 1960s, Venezuela, once a sleepy corner of South America ruled by dictators, was a fledgling democracy with growing oil revenues and hunger for modernity. A new elite and middle class grew amid the skyscrapers but most rural migrants ended up in hillside shacks around cities.

Chavez, a talented baseball player, dreamed not of politics but pitching for the major leagues. Instead, he fell in love with soldiering. "A uniform, a gun, an area, close-order formation, marches, morning runs, studies in military science - I was like a fish in water," he recalled.

As Chavez moved up the ranks, he studied the writings of Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century liberator who ousted the Spanish, as well as philosophers such as Nietzsche and Plekhanov. Inspired by revolutionary military leaders in Panama and Peru, and leftwing Venezuelan intellectuals, an idea began to form: revolt.

Over a decade, he gathered fellow officers into a conspiracy to replace what they saw as a venal, sham democracy with a progressive, real democracy. The February 1992 coup was a military fiasco, letting the unpopular Government survive, but Chavez turned his televised surrender address into a political triumph. Eloquent and dashing in his red beret, he introduced himself to a startled nation - "listen to comandante Chavez" - and said his objectives had not been met "por ahora", for now. He deserved 30 years in jail, went the joke: one for the coup, 29 for failing.

Pardoned and released after two years, he was adopted as a figurehead by a coalition of grassroots movements and leftwing parties and stormed to victory in the 1998 election, cheered not only by the poor but a middle class fed up with ossified political parties. With a barrel of oil just US$8, the petro-state was near broke.

Few outside Venezuela, until then best known for beauty queens and oil, knew what to make of this mercurial arrival.

Within a few short years, Chavez became one of the world's most recognisable and polarising figures. Vehement rhetoric - he railed against the wealthy as "squealing pigs" and "vampires" who looted oil wealth - endeared him to the poor and alienated the middle class and traditional elites. They called him a monkey and worse. In April 2002, the elites briefly ousted him in a Bush Administration-backed coup, tried again with an oil strike, then a recall referendum.

Chavez survived and grew more radical, declaring himself a socialist and nationalising swaths of the economy. Soaring oil prices gushed billions into the treasury, which he used to fund Cuban-run health clinics and other social programmes, easing poverty. He created a state media empire that promoted a personality cult and tightened executive control over the armed forces, the judiciary and the legislature. He called George Bush a "donkey", "Mr Danger", "an asshole" and, during a memorable UN speech, "the devil".

After winning a second term in 2006, Chavez won a referendum abolishing term limits and talked of ruling until 2021, then 2030. That looks fanciful now. He remains revered in the barrios. But even supporters are fed up with horrific crime rates, inflation, shortages and crumbling infrastructure. Bridges collapse, refineries blow up, blackouts shroud cities.

Chavez has proved a shrewd political strategist and inspired communicator but disastrous manager, warping the economy with contradictory controls, creating and dissolving ministries by caprice, launching and abandoning initiatives, neglecting investment and maintenance. Despite record oil revenues, Venezuela is borrowing billions to try to plug the holes.

Charisma, giveaways and institutional control, not least the ability to monopolise the airwaves, could yet clinch re-election but Chavez faces two formidable obstacles.

Drained and bloated by cancer treatment, he sometimes has trouble walking. His public appearances are few and often melancholic. The other obstacle is Capriles. Unlike previous inept opposition leaders, the state governor is a disciplined, energetic campaigner.

Whether the president wins or not - and given his electoral track record you would be foolish or brave to bet against him - his fame will live on.

Hugo Chavez

Age: 58

Who: Venezuelan President who is seeking re-election.

Background: From a poor family in the Venezuelan grasslands known as los llanos. He had a military career and was a former lieutenant colonel. Chavez has been treated for cancer over the past two years and has had three operations in Cuba.

Career: He led a 1992 coup that failed but it boosted his profile and he won a 1998 presidential election. Chavez survived a short-lived coup in 2002.

Politics: Chavez is supported by the poor and has expanded health and education programmes. Despite difficult relations with the United States, it remains Venezuela's major oil export market. Chavez has nationalised areas of the economy. He is a populist and is known for long speeches - his record is 9.5 hours.

- Observer

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