Hugo Chávez: Portrait of A Man With Many Faces

Chávez shows Post Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman a tiny copy of Venezuela's constitution he carries around.
Chávez shows Post Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman a tiny copy of Venezuela's constitution he carries around. (Miraflores Photo)
By Milton Coleman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

CARACAS, Venezuela -- He worked the crowd like a master politician, shaking hands, gazing into women's eyes, glad-handing the American visitors who'd just heard him fulminate against his enemies du jour. He'd been venomous, long-winded, dismissive -- just like the caricature the United States knows so well. And yet here was President Hugo Chávez working a crowd of foreign journalists as if we were his old friends.

Something about me caught his attention. He looked me up and down, taking full measure of this tall, dark-skinned American before him. He squared his shoulders. Then, a sheepish grin spread across his face as if he weren't sure he could get away with the greeting he wanted to give me. But he did it anyway, saying "Black power" and extending his hand for a shake.

It took me aback. Not at all what I expected from the president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

"Black power," I said, almost reflexively. I grinned back at the amused president and chuckled softly at this strange and unexpected encounter.

* * *

That's Chávez. You never know which character you're going to get. The lectern-pounding revolutionary? The petro-populist? The crooning romantic?

Chávez was a mystery to me. What was he really all about? How much substance, how much style, how much, even, sheer stupidity? No easy call, I was learning. And even after watching his performance at a three-hour news conference (short by Chávez standards) as part of my visit with a delegation from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, he seemed more complicated than even I had presumed.

A country boy whose rough edges were never smoothed, Chávez, 53, is a career army commander who catapulted into Venezuela's power elite. He relishes his outsider status. Though his critics paint him as a buffoon, he is seriously and unapologetically trying to change his country's ruptured society from the bottom up.

Hugo Chávez may be many things -- and the United States believes he's a danger to stability in Latin America. But one thing he is not: a joke.

The label Chávez detests most is "dictator." That is how his critics portray him: He controls all three branches of government; he's amended the constitution to impose his will; he muzzles his critics in the media; he harasses the business establishment.

What's more, they say, he pretends to be a man of the people but is a big spender who tolerates corruption. He lavishes the nation's windfall petrobucks on revolution abroad and patronage at home. He is a sometimes foulmouthed egomaniac on a power trip, and an acknowledged disciple of Fidel Castro of communist Cuba.

Chávez's retort? Get over it! Who's winning the elections? Who has the mandate? To the victor go the spoils.

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