Person of the Week: Hugo Chavez

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President Hugo Chavez thanks God during a news conference in Caracas

"Render unto God what is God's, to Caesar what is Caesar's and to the people what is to the people."

With that clumsily tailored bit of scripture President Hugo Chavez returned to power in Venezuela at 4:35 a.m. local time Sunday, ending the wildest weekend that Latin American politics has seen in quite some time. Less than 48 hours after a military coup put one of Venezuela's most powerful businessmen in the presidential palace, former paratrooper Chavez was back in office — and entrenched more deeply than ever.

Because if Pedro Carmona didn't exist, Chavez couldn't have invented a better rival. Chavez' fist-pounding brand of leftist, class-warfare populism has served him well in a nation where 85 percent of the voters are desperately poor, but his two-term record of keeping them that way had left his position shaky. Then came Carmona, the epitome of the moneyed elite that Chavez rose to power railing against.

Carmona denounced Chavez as a dictator — then promptly issued a decree shutting down Congress, suspending the Supreme Court and authorizing the firing of elected officials. Chavez supporters weren't long in capitalizing; street demonstrations erupted, military members rebelled, and Chavez was back on TV, speaking of vast conspiracies and traitors in business suits.

The United States — and most of Chavez' Latin American neighbors — couldn't be less thrilled. The president of the world's fourth-largest oil-producing nation counts Fidel Castro as a mentor (and supplys Cuba with bargain-price oil) and Iraq and Libya as his partners in petroleum. He not-so-tacitly backs the Colombian rebels and openly challenges the Free Trade Area of the Americas, counting the U.S. as one of his favorite scapegoats and world oil prices as one of his most reliable political levers.

The Bush Administration spent this week denying that it had previously given Carmona's people its tacit go-ahead, and has since joined with the Organization of American States to condemn last Friday's "alteration of constitutional order" as a violation of the democratic principles it officially supports in the region. But a pro-business, pro-trade, foreign-investment-friendly Carmona Administration was just what Washington has been craving in Venezuela; now the burr under George Bush's hemispheric saddle hurts all the more for having left the U.S. with its more hypocritical side — thug or no thug, Chavez is twice elected — exposed.

And Venezuela may be worse off than ever. Venezuela's oil capacity, starved for new exploration, has been steadily dwindling for years; Chavez' leftist policies (30 percent government royalties on new ventures, plus a requirement that the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela be majority owners) have only scared off the foreign investment needed to revive what is the country's only significant source of wealth. Now, with Chavez under increased pressure to spend money on social programs, analysts fear the slide will only quicken.

Upon his triumphal return, Chavez promised to work to heal the divisions by which he lived, died and lived again; he thanked his supporters "for writing a new page in Venezuelan history?an example of a people that has definitely woken up." Those people — and a chagrined U.S. — can now only hope that Chavez has done the same.