Hugo Chavez Frias

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It has been a year of political risk taking in Latin America as leaders tried to forge landmark social and political changes, sometimes impelled by desperation, sometimes not. In Colombia, President Andres Pastrana Arango slipped away from bodyguards several times to meet in the jungle with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in hopes of advancing his controversial peace process--but to no avail. In Mexico, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León made good on his promise to end the secretive nomination process for presidential candidates within the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and install open primaries instead. Amid these bold attempts at reform there was one sweeping revolution: the drastic political and social overhaul of Venezuela beginning under President Hugo Chávez Frias, 45.

Since he was elected by a landslide on Dec. 6, 1998, the burly, charismatic ex-paratrooper and former coup leader has swept aside Venezuela's political parties, stripped Congress of most of its powers and suspended more than 190 judges on corruption charges. In July, members of Chávez's Polo Patriotico movement won 95% of the seats in a new constitutional assembly. In just 60 days, they hammered together an extraordinarily comprehensive--and unwieldy--constitution, and renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

The constitution's 350 articles reshape everything from Congress (reduced from two chambers to one) to the judiciary (judges will be installed after public exams rather than congressional nomination) and sets up a public defender's office with authority over the other branches of government. Above all, it gives more power to Chávez through an augmented presidency that can now dissolve Congress. Chávez has indicated that he may call early elections next spring. Under the new charter he is entitled to a second, consecutive term.

Chávez represents a populist backlash against Venezuela's entrenched power elite, whose corruption and ineptitude had virtually bankrupted the oil-rich Caribbean nation. In another sense, he is part of a broad wave of unease across the continent at the wrenching changes of free market privatization and globalization that have often failed to deliver economic promise to more than a favored few. He also underscores a tolerance in parts of the region to allow presidential figures sweeping extensions of their constitutional powers to effect change. But only Chávez has couched his political aims in the dramatic language of revolution--a language that owes more to his hero, South American liberator Simón Bolivar, than to any 20th century ideologue.

Chávez clearly revels in his role as a hemispheric gadfly, who is especially critical of U.S. influence in the region. He chums with Fidel Castro and has invited petro-pariahs Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya to a summit of oil producers in Caracas next March. Immediately after his election, Chávez started up a correspondence with notorious terrorist Ilich Ramirez "Carlos the Jackal" Sánchez, who is imprisoned for life in France, and expressed his "profound faith in the cause." A fervent Latin American pan-nationalist, Chávez has called for creation of a multinational security force for Latin America that would exclude the U.S. Unbidden, he offered to mediate between Pastrana and the FARC rebels in Colombia. His exploits receive enthusiastic coverage across the region, but privately, officials in neighboring countries express concern over what they see as Chávez's intrusiveness in their affairs.

Yet for all his rhetoric, Chávez has tried to cultivate a responsible side. Even while sending members of the old order packing, he has given obeisance to the rule of law. His new constitution provides for presidential removal through a public referendum. Chávez speaks often and forcefully about how the constitution will take power from the "cheats and the little caudillos of the political parties" and restore it to the people. Even while he has put military officers into key posts in the state oil company, he has passed laws that protect the assets of nervous foreign investors, and guarantees existing contracts between companies and the preceding government.

So far as most ordinary Venezuelans are concerned, however, the constitutional niceties of Chávez's behavior are less important than the fact that he swept the hated plutocracy from power. Says Energy Minister Ali Rodriguez, "Hugo Chávez has been the most effective bulwark against the country's social explosion." The President has shown a keen awareness of the symbolism of change: he stripped top politicians and former government officials of their perks and put the state's fleet of 134 private jets up for sale.

Chávez has started to deliver the badly needed social goods, using his old alma mater, the armed forces, as his preferred delivery vehicle. In April, he started Project Bolivar 2000, which put the military to work building roads and organizing wholesale food sales in slums. State funds began flowing from army garrisons rather than through local government. On weekends, Chávez tours the country, listening to the complaints of campesinos and doling out personal favors to the needy.

His personalist rule inevitably leads Chávez to take criticism personally. Despite his unprecedented levels of popular support, he has recently launched tirades against the foreign press and his scattered opponents: businessmen, intellectuals and the church. Both the country and the region are now about to learn where he truly intends to go, and what he intends to do.

With reporting by Christina Hoag/Caracas