The revolution is upon us, proclaimed the orator from the presidential balcony, one that heralds a brave new era for "the sons and daughters of the great liberator, Simon Bolivar," a fellow Venezuelan. His voice quaked as he spoke of the "poison tongues" that have derided him as a dictator disguised as a democrat.
"No, no, no," shouted President Hugo Chavez, seeming part revivalist preacher, part crusading general. There is democracy in Venezuela, and he embodies it.
"Now, Chavez is not Chavez; Chavez is the people!" he cried. "And the people will not be stopped!"
Chavez's address from the balcony of the Miraflores Palace, echoing the style of Latin American populists from Juan Peron to Fidel Castro, came only hours before his "Venezuelan Revolution" took a major step forward Sunday, when voters gave his political supporters 96 percent of the seats in a powerful new assembly that will rewrite the constitution.
But while his supporters -- many of them poor -- are rejoicing, critics say that Chavez plans to manipulate the assembly to carry out his threats to dissolve Congress and the Supreme Court. Already, they point out, the 44-year-old former army paratrooper has militarized society to a level not seen since democracy was restored here in 1958. Army doctors are now working in civilian hospitals. Soldiers are building schools and highways. Military doctrine will soon be taught in schools.
"Even as he hails the democratic process, there is no doubt he will use the Constitutional Assembly to achieve dictatorial powers," said Jorge Olavarria, a former top Chavez aide who broke with him over what he called the president's authoritarian ambitions. "We are returning to the dark days in Venezuela."
Washington has been watching nervously since Chavez was elected in December to lead Venezuela, the United States' largest foreign source of oil. Citing national sovereignty, Chavez has refused permission for U.S. anti-drug aircraft to fly over Venezuela en route to Colombia from the Caribbean. Meanwhile, he has developed close ties with Castro and is spearheading a plan to for a railroad-track factory to be built jointly with China and Iran. He even has become a pen pal of the imprisoned Venezuelan-born terrorist Carlos the Jackal.
But while Chavez's idiosyncratic style has drawn international attention, his political rise is even more notable for its similarities to those of other Latin American leaders. In such countries as Peru -- led by the iconoclastic Alberto Fujimori -- and Bolivia -- where a former dictator, Hugo Banzer, holds the presidency -- voters disillusioned with divided and corrupt political institutions have favored civilian candidates who harken back to an era of authoritarian rule that had closed with the demise of military dictatorships.
Today, weakened democratic institutions are undergoing critical tests in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay and elsewhere in the hemisphere. "What you see is a complete failure of political institutions, especially in the Andean region, to create a system of checks and balances and allow real democracy to thrive," said Michael Shifter, senior fellow at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington research organization. "Instead, you're seeing serious political instability."
Despite his image as a humble man of the people, Chavez remains an enigma. In an interview before Sunday's election, Chavez insisted he is anything but a dictator in the making. "I am rebuilding democracy here," he said, "not tearing it down."
He said his vision is to work with the Constitutional Assembly to create a "fourth branch of government" as once envisioned by Bolivar, the 19th-century politician and military leader who helped liberate several South American countries from Spanish rule. It would act as an ombudsman and fiscal overseer of the other three branches "and could even remove the president," Chavez said.
Chavez, who was jailed after leading two coup attempts in 1992, also denied "militarizing" society, saying he has given the armed forces "a glorious new mission" to restore the more than 750 public works projects that have been abandoned for lack of government funds.
But Chavez raised fears about both his links to the military and his authoritarian leanings when he illegally reinstated soldiers and officers who had supported his coup attempts. He also promoted several military officials without the congressional approval required by law. When Congress protested, he threatened to shut it down.
Asked why he took those actions, he replied: "Because I am commander in chief. I am the supreme authority."
Chavez has little competition in ruling Venezuela. The two main political parties, both reviled by Chavez, have been discredited amid allegations of corruption and cronyism. In a nation in which more than 80 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty level, the parties are dominated by wealthy political cliques. President Carlos Andres Perez removed from office in 1993 for misspending millions of dollars of public money.
Traditional politicians here have not only been corrupt, analysts say, but inept and shortsighted. While gorging on an oil bonanza that lasted several decades, a line of democratic leaders failed to develop other industries. Now, with oil prices half what they were in the 1970s, the economy has come crashing down, contracting 8 percent in the first four months of this year.
Enter the charismatic Chavez. Born in a mud hut by a rushing river in the interior, the son of two struggling teachers, the dark-skinned president sometimes talks in street slang. The poor buy his newspaper, the President's Post -- which is supported by government advertising -- and reverently listen to his radio program and TV talk show, on which he often attacks "the corrupt political elites who turned the presidential palace into a whorehouse with their mistresses and their liquor and their lazy, self-satisfied ways."
Chavez has promised to redistribute wealth, now concentrated in a tiny fraction of the population. He has launched a government housing project to improve the squalid shantytowns in the jade-colored hills of Caracas and has supported the radical leaders of land takeovers, who have occupied empty government buildings and the property of Venezuela's rich landowners.
To fund his populist initiatives, Chavez is courting private foreign investment, arguing that decisive leadership will make Venezuela attractive to outside capital. The cornerstone of his economic program is a 20-year project to relocate millions of people from the densely populated coast to the underdeveloped interior, building factories, large-scale agriculture and tourism facilities there.
On Sunday, voters gave Chavez's allies all but eight seats in the new 131-seat assembly, even electing his wife, Marisabel. For the next six months, that body will be the nation's highest political institution, replacing the 38-year-old constitution and redefining the rule of law on issues from crime to freedom of expression to presidential terms.
The result could be to enshrine Chavez's uncontested authority. "Chavez has become a messiah figure to Venezuelans," said Congressman Ramon Aveledo, former presiding officer of the lower house. "I know that politicians here have become a victim of themselves. But what I regret is that most Venezuelans are too young to remember what life was like during the military dictatorship in the 1950s. They are in for a rude awakening."
But in Caracas's 23d of January slum, Marta Lopez de Cubano says such talk is just the sound of a frightened establishment. "We're not as stupid as they think," said Lopez, a 35-year-old dressmaker who voted for Chavez's candidates Sunday.
"I don't want my two girls to grow up in the same hell I live in," she said. "Chavez is the first to stand up for the poor. If he needs to use a strong hand, then I say, use it."