Hugo Chávez's sweeping election win may be read as a simple mandate for the demagogic Venezuelan leader to push on with his plans to transform his country with what he calls "21st-century socialism," designed to empower the impoverished masses with state-controlled oil profits, as described in my article last week. But for the region and the world, his victory could mean much more.
World Politics Watch International News Editor Guy Taylor interviews Jose Orozco (pictured above), a freelance journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela. Orozco is already well-known to the world media who cover Venezuela because he works for many prominent news organizations as a "fixer." Fixers play an indispensable role in foreign reporting, serving as guides and translators, and providing all-important contacts for reporters looking for local stories.
The populist leader who has often infuriated U.S. officials while cutting a wide swath through world capitals was just as dominant in the frenzied campaigning leading up to his bid for re-election on Dec. 3 -- on television, barnstorming through poor barrios, leaving his supporters enthralled and his detractors enraged. One thing no one disputes is that Hugo Chavez's outsized personality commanded center stage.
The country's national flag, the posters of revolutionary leaders like Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara, the glee with which politicians and citizens alike poor abuse on Uncle Sam -- all proof that President Hugo Chavez has succeeded in stirring long-dormant strains of Venezuelan nationalism.
A small crowd gathers at six each evening on the steps outside a dilapidated high school in one of Caracas's many impoverished barrios. With the sun dipping in the distance, middle-aged women arrive with their daughters. A few old men stand smoking cigarettes. One guy with tattoos on his arms labours up in a wheelchair and two rugged-looking characters help him ease it down the steps. The whole scene feels like something out of a Hugo Chávez infomercial.
A new president was sworn into office today in Mexico, after much uncertainty after a disputed election. On Sunday, President Hugo Chavez is running for re-election in Venezuela. Reviled in the United States, but in his own country Chavez arouses passion in supporters as well as opponents. What are the chances of the man who called President Bush "the devil" in a speech to the United Nation?
Alberto Robles stood beneath a street lamp whose yellow glow hung over a corner of the barrio where he has lived his whole life.
Robles, 36, pointed to a steep hillside dotted with lights nearby where a block of crumbling shacks was recently replaced by sturdy houses. It's a shining example of grass-roots government at work, he said.
Women faint when they meet him. Men create stampedes to keep up with caravans he leads through impoverished cities where prior generations of leaders have not dared tread.
"When you see him in person, it's something that cannot be explained," said Susana Fonseca, craning her neck for a better view of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez as he worked his way through a mob of admirers here earlier this month.
"We've never had men like him in our history," said Fonseca, 43, a public accountant.
A central feature of changes being brought about by President Hugo Chávez is the new, civilian branch of the Venezuelan military called the "territorial guard."
About 100,000 citizens, mainly from poor communities where support for Chávez burns hottest, have joined the guard during the past three years, according to members who participate in weekly training sessions at more than a dozen camps set up around the country.
Critics say there's no better example of Hugo Chávez's suave egomania than his weekly television talk show, in which he takes calls from viewers across the country.
But they can't argue with the show's popularity.
"Alo Presidente" — "Hello President" — appears on state television every Sunday and typically runs for as long as six hours.
The show is taped from a different location each week, usually at the site of one of the government's social welfare programs, where Chávez appears with a telephone to take calls from viewers.
President Hugo Chavez is despised by many in his country for what they see as populist demagoguery and reckless policies, but that is not the case in the barrios and isolated rural hamlets of a country that remains extraordinarily poor despite its equally extraordinary wealth in oil. What poor and long marginalized Venezuelans see in Chavez are programs like free dental care, access to education and aid to the less advantaged in city and country alike.
The skycrapers of Caracas bespeak a proudly confident country reaping the rewards of one of the world's great pools of oil. The shacks within sight of the sleek glass towers, the vast new urban slums and isolated villages untouched by modern conveniences all tell another story -- of the 50 percent of Venezuelans who live below the poverty line.