A Kinder, Gentler Hugo Chávez?

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Marcelo Hernandez / AP

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez during a meeting in Brasília, Brazil, Friday, May 23, 2008.

When Hugo Chavez took power and the world was first taking stock of the new leader in Venezuela, U.S. diplomats there counseled that the firebrand's bark was worse than his bite. "Pay attention to what Chavez does, not what he says," was the message to Washington from its people in the field. But after Chavez last weekend withdrew a controversial intelligence law in Venezuela, and told Colombia's FARC rebels that the age of Marxist guerrilla warfare in Latin America is over, many may be wondering if even the bark of the hemisphere's most prominent anti-U.S. maverick has begun to mellow.

If so, the reason may well be that Chavez "realizes his long-term political survival is at stake," says Larry Birns, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "Right now, being a radical is not where the votes are" in a country that, despite its vast oil wealth, is wrestling with high inflation and even higher rates of violent crime. Chavez suffered a rare but stinging defeat last year in a referendum on constitutional amendments that would have broadened his socialist agenda and eliminated presidential term limits. Now, he appears determined to prevent his once feckless opposition from dealing him another setback in state and local elections scheduled for November. Those races will set the tone for later parliamentary balloting, which could in turn decide whether Chavez has the palanca, or leverage, to set aside presidential term limits. (Under the current rules, he's scheduled to leave office in 2013.) So Chavez has plenty of incentive to adjust his political thermostat and refrain from antagonizing his electorate.

Chavez controls the hemisphere's largest oil reserves, but an equally valuable commodity — the one that shields him from U.S. accusations that he's a dictator in the mold of Cuba's Fidel Castro — is his democratic legitimacy. Despite his authoritarian bent, Chavez has been fairly elected three times, and he can't afford to forfeit that cachet. That's why he surprised his critics by respecting the will of the electorate when he lost last year's referendum. The need to maintain his democratic credentials is also the reason why, in the face of howls from civil rights groups, he did an about-face on Saturday and promised to soften a recent dictum that would have ramped up Venezuela's intelligence-gathering activities against its own citizens. Chavez acknowledged he could not "defend the indefensible," and added, "There is no dictatorship here."

Hours later, he was called on to respond to another crisis, when Colombian authorities announced the arrest of a Venezuelan army sergeant ferrying 40,000 cartridges for AK-47 rifles to FARC guerrillas. Venezuela insists the soldier was corrupt and acting on his own. Conservative Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a key U.S. ally, has for months accused Chavez, a staunch FARC supporter, of funneling aid to the rebels. The charge, he claims, is supported by alleged evidence from laptop computers belonging to a top FARC commander killed in a commando raid last March. Chavez vehemently denies it and insists the laptop files are phony. But the case has put him under the kind of intense international scrutiny he so often insists the Bush Administration deserves. So, given how passionately Chavez prizes his political influence in the hemisphere, the Saturday arrest was the last thing he needed.

Rather than dig in his heels and call the whole thing a yanqui-led conspiracy, however, Chavez on Sunday urged the FARC to end its 44-year-old guerrilla campaign, even declaring that the kind of Marxist insurgency he once championed has become a thing of the past. The FARC's armed movement, he said, is "out of place" in today's Latin America.

"That was an amazing statement for him to make," says Birns. Chavez also called on the rebels to release all of their more than 750 hostages, including three U.S. defense contractors, without conditions. "It would be a great humanitarian gesture," said Chavez, who earlier this year brokered the release of a half dozen hostages.

The once powerful FARC has been battered in recent years by Colombia's U.S.-backed military; and last month's death of its elderly chief, Manuel Marulanda, was just the latest loss to its command structure. But the guerrillas, who make hundreds of millions of dollars a year protecting cocaine trafficking, aren't likely to disband or free their captives any time soon.

Either, way, pundits agree that it's as smart for Chavez to distance himself from the FARC as it is to backtrack on his new domestic intelligence law. They also suggest that the Venezuelan leader is keeping his radical burners on medium-low for now, in the hopes that fewer outbursts from Hurricane Hugo — who has previously called President Bush "the devil" and Uribe "a criminal" — could even help get a Democrat into the White House this fall. "[Chavez] may decide to go a little less gonzo in the coming months as a result," says Birns. Meanwhile, the rest of the world will be paying attention to what Chavez does — despite the fact that it's often very hard to ignore the things Chavez says.

With reporting by Virginia Lopez/Caracas