Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, is a genial fellow with a good sense of humor and a steely political purpose. As a former military officer, he is accustomed to the language of battle and he thrives under attack. He will laugh off this week's suggestion by Pat Robertson, the US televangelist, that he should be assassinated, but he will also seize on it to ratchet up the verbal conflict with the US that has lasted throughout his presidency.
Chavez, now 51, is the same age as UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and after nearly seven years as president he has been in power for almost as long. But there the similarities end. Chavez is a man of the left and, like most Latin Americans with a sense of history, he is distrustful of the US. Free elections in Latin America have often thrown up radical governments that Washington would like to see overthrown and the Chavez government is no exception to this rule.
Chavez is a genuinely revolutionary figure, one of those larger-than-life characters who surface regularly in the history of Latin America -- and achieve power perhaps twice in a hundred years. He wants to change the history of the continent. His close friend and role model is Fidel Castro, Cuba's long-serving leader. The two men meet regularly, talk constantly on the telephone and have formed a close political and military alliance. Venezuela has deployed more than 20,000 Cuban doctors in its shanty-towns, and Cuba is the grateful recipient of cheap Venezuelan oil, replacing the subsidized oil it once used to receive from the Soviet Union. This, in the eyes of the US government, would itself be a heinous crime that would put Chavez at the top of its list for removal. The US has been at war with Cuba for nearly half a century, mostly conducted by economic means, and it only abandoned plans for Castro's direct overthrow after subscribing to a tacit agreement not to do so with the Soviet Union after the missile crisis of 1962.
The US would have dealt with Chavez long ago had they not been faced by two crucial obstacles. First, they have been notably preoccupied in recent years in other parts of the world, and have hardly had the time, the personnel, or the attention span to deal with the charismatic colonel. Second, Venezuela is one of the principal suppliers of oil to the US market (literally so in that 13,000 US gasoline stations are owned by Citgo, an extension of Venezuela's state oil company). Any hasty attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan government would undoubtedly threaten this oil lifeline, and Chavez himself has long warned that his assassination would close down the pumps. With his popularity topping 70 percent in the polls, he would be a difficult figure to dislodge.
Chavez comes from the provinces of Venezuela, from the vast southern cattle lands of the Llanos that stretch down to the Apure and Orinoco river system. Of black and Indian ancestry, his parents were local schoolteachers, and he has inherited their didactic skills. His talents first came to the fore when he joined the army and became a popular lecturer at the war college in Caracas. He is a brilliant communicator, speaking for hours on television in a folksy manner that captivates his admirers and irritates his opponents.
He never stops talking and he never stops working. He has time for everyone and never forgets a face. For several years he travelled incessantly around the country, to keep an eye on what was going on.