Late Night With Hugo Chavez

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, August 26, 2005

I'm not sure whether Pat Robertson has lost his tenuous grip on reality or is just trying to boost "The 700 Club" in the Nielsens. If it's ratings he's after, he'll probably get them: It's not every day that you hear a brand-name evangelist call for murdering a foreign leader in cold blood. I thought the bumper-sticker slogan was "Jesus Is My Co-Pilot," not "Jesus Is My Hit Man."

Robertson called his target, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a "dictator" -- which is more than slightly ironic. You will recall that the preacher showed his love of freedom by supporting such murderous thugs as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Charles Taylor of Liberia. You'll also recall that, coincidentally, Robertson's companies ended up with valuable concessions to mine for gold and diamonds in those countries.

Say goodnight, Pat; it's time to sign off.

Chavez, on the other hand, is just beginning his run in prime time, and his show promises to be must-see TV. I'm not just flogging a metaphor: Chavez has his own Sunday night talk show -- translated, the title is "Hello, President!" -- and it can only be described as a unique exercise in stream-of-presidential-consciousness.

One evening in June, for example, he brought out the head of the Venezuelan navy and proceeded to talk sports with him, then predicted that the Venezuelan national volleyball team would beat the Cuban squad, taunting his friend Fidel Castro with his assessment that the result would be a "knockout." He then abruptly turned to chat with a group of peasants who now occupy land that Chavez's government had seized from its wealthy owners in a program of land reform. That was all in the first few minutes. Sometimes Chavez just delivers a long, rambling monologue. Occasionally he will break into song.

It's a mistake, though, to think of Chavez as a buffoon. For one thing, Venezuela is a charter member of OPEC and ranks as the world's fifth-largest exporter of oil, which automatically lends its leader a certain gravitas. And with support and guidance from a shrewd mentor -- that would be Castro, who knows a bit about U.S. assassination attempts -- Chavez is emerging as the most significant challenger to U.S. dominance in the hemisphere.

In broad strokes, Chavez is a character out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical-realist novels. As a charismatic army colonel, he led two failed coup attempts -- the second from a jail cell -- before coming to power the old-fashioned way, through the ballot box, in 1998. His ideology was obscure until he turned decisively left, donning the mantle of Venezuela's favorite son, independence leader Simon Bolivar, to provide historical legitimacy.

He so enraged the Venezuelan upper classes that they tried to oust him with demonstrations, strikes, a short-lived coup and a recall election. But his support among the poor majority only solidified as he flooded the slums with petrodollars to pay for desperately needed social services that previous regimes had neglected.

Castro sent his protégé thousands of well-trained Cuban physicians -- the joke in Havana these days is that you can't find a good doctor, they're all in Caracas. He also sent advisers who are helping Chavez reorganize the slums on what looks remarkably like the Cuban model. In Havana, it's said that Castro also sent an experienced team to guarantee Chavez's personal security. In return, Castro is receiving an ample supply of oil for the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed.

Chavez's ascent has come at a time when other major Latin American governments have been shifting to the left -- Argentina, Brazil, perhaps Mexico next year. Sometimes Chavez goes off the reservation, as he did recently by musing about a joint nuclear program with Iran; he drew quick rebukes from his neighbors. But with all that Venezuelan oil, and with the price at more than $60 a barrel, Chavez could sing a lullaby in Farsi on his television show and still be a major player.

The Bush administration chafes at Chavez's frequent rhetorical jabs and worries about his attempt to lead the region away from free-market orthodoxy. But the United States continues to buy more than half of the oil

that Venezuela produces. Business is

business.

But when Robertson called for his assassination, Chavez was in Cuba on one of his frequent visits -- and that relationship is what really drives the White House nuts. On the nightly state-run newscast in Cuba, the coverage of Chavez is almost as reverent and hagiographic as the coverage of Castro himself. At 79, Castro finally has a formidable successor to play the role of stubborn burr under the yanquí saddle.

The author will answer questions today at 2 p.m. onhttp://www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail iseugenerobinson@washpost.com.


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