Venezuela Has Oil Money, And Chavez Sings His Tune

Fidel Castro, left, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a visit to Venezuela last month. Chavez often speaks admiringly of Cuba's president.
Fidel Castro, left, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a visit to Venezuela last month. Chavez often speaks admiringly of Cuba's president. (By Fernando Llano -- Associated Press)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 15, 2005

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Standing before a battery of television cameras, President Hugo Chavez confronted the impulse to break into song and -- as often happens in such moments -- surrendered without a fight.

" Guantanamera ," he sang in confident baritone, swaying slightly to the refrain of Cuba's most celebrated tune. " Guajira Guantanamera . . . ."

Chavez was in the middle of his weekly six-hour television program, "Hello, President," which during 228 episodes has provided exhaustive insight into the man who rivals Fidel Castro as Latin America's most charismatic and controversial leader.

The Cuban love song was a fitting soundtrack for a recent episode, in which Chavez repeatedly thanked Castro for inspiring him to accelerate the redistribution of wealth in a nation where about half the people live in poverty.

Riding on a tide of record prices for Venezuelan oil, Chavez -- who has survived both a brief coup and a recall referendum -- now appears to be consolidating public support, using the economic windfall to expand social programs for the poor and to intensify what he calls a "peaceful revolution" against global capitalism.

Chavez's political relations with the United States remain as rocky as ever, and he has repeatedly asserted that the CIA is plotting to overthrow him. Domestic opponents, meanwhile, charge that his new social largess is accompanied by heavy-handed attempts to take control of the country's institutions and stifle dissent -- all in an effort to hold on to power as tightly as his hero in Havana has done for 46 years.

"He's making all sorts of changes, and he's doing it on the advice of Fidel," said Carlos Eduardo Berrizbeitia, a legislator from a political party opposed to Chavez. "He now has begun tailoring the institutions in this country -- like the Supreme Court -- to create a suit that fits only himself. The suit has the sheen of democracy, but it's not real."

With sales of 1.5 million barrels of oil a day to the United States, worth as much as $2.7 billion a month, Chavez has increased government spending by 36.2 percent this year. He has poured billions into state-subsidized grocery stores, workers' cooperatives, adult education centers and public health clinics staffed by what government officials say are about 16,000 physicians on loan from Cuba.

Meanwhile, the president has persuaded the friendly National Assembly to allow him to replace opponents on the Supreme Court, fill a dozen extra judicial seats with allies, revamp the national penal code and tighten controls on TV and radio broadcasters. In addition, the legislature is poised to give him greater control over Central Bank reserves.

The government declined requests for an interview with the president.

While critics at home and abroad warn of his increasingly dictatorial tendencies, Chavez enjoys broad support among the poor and popularity ratings exceeding 60 percent. When fans watch him on television, they don't see a power-hungry demagogue, but a defiant ally who sings when he feels like it and doesn't care if detractors say they've heard the tune somewhere before.

"They talk about human rights abuses, they say that Chavez is a tyrant and a dictator," Chavez said during his show. "They are lies, all lies."

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