Hugo's Crude Common Ground With America

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Chavez speaks to supporters in Caracas

On Wednesday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is supposed to answer hundreds of thousands of opponents who marched through Caracas last week and gave him an ultimatum: either resign, call an early referendum on your presidency, or face a massive general business and labor strike this month. But Chavez, whose radical left-wing demagoguery has violently polarized the oil-rich nation, can probably afford to ignore the call — and not just because most of Venezuela's poor, who make up 80% of the population, are on his side. Chavez has another, albeit unlikely ally for the moment: George W. Bush.

Before the U.S. began moving toward war with Iraq this past summer, Bush and Chavez were hardly amigos. In fact, Chavez lost any chance of winning a chummy nickname from Bush two years ago when, during a visit to Iraq, he called Saddam Hussein "my brother." Chavez's red beret — the symbol of his "revolution," which he wears with the Yanqui-baiting swagger of Che Guevara — didn't help. Nor does the way Chavez taunts his U.S.-friendly opposition, which nearly toppled him last April in a coup, an uprising Chavez supporters accuse the Bush Administration of covertly encouraging (a charge the White House denies). "My opponents are like worn-out athletes who have to shoot dope to stay in the race," Chavez said as 200,000 of his worshipping fans marched through Caracas recently. So what common ground could Chavez and Bush possibly find?

Oil, of course. Chavez, 47, controls the hemisphere's largest reserves, which are often touted as America's long-term relief from Middle East oil dependence. And with his economy staring into an Argentine-style abyss, he needs to sell more of it — especially since the financial crisis has his military enemies itching to stage another coup. (During last week's march, Vice Adm. Alvaro Martin Fossa, the nation's second most powerful military figure, resigned in protest of Chavez's government.) The U.S., meanwhile, bracing for the possibility of petro-market chaos if it invades Iraq, needs more reliable supplies.

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As a result, officials inside Chavez's government say it's more than coincidence that he hasn't made a peep about Saddam in months, or that he backed Bush's recent U.N. speech condemning the Iraqi leader. In fact, the insurrection Chavez faced last spring--which he frequently likens to a terrorist attack--has made him more supportive, he says, of the war on terrorism. "I revere the U.S. as the nation of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King," he says now. "I want Americans to know that our revolution is about their ideals." For its part, the Bush Administration is now warning trigger-happy Venezuelan generals that it won't recognize any unconstitutional overthrow of Chavez. The White House "wouldn't be doing that if it hadn't decided that we have to deal with this guy," says a U.S. official in Latin America. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton Matos, concurs: "Our channels of communication [with the U.S.] are suddenly multiplying now." So much so that Venezuela, which already exports 1.54 million bbl. a day to the U.S., has just begun negotiating a 20-year oil-delivery deal with Washington and just opened its vast natural gas fields to about $4 billion worth of U.S. and foreign investment. Still, the U.S. does not expect an easy partnership with Chavez, who as a paratrooper colonel led an abortive coup himself 10 years ago. The April uprising did sober him into dumping the inept socialists he had put in charge of Venezuela's state oil monopoly — and who had been lavishing heavily subsidized oil shipments on Chavez's buddy, Cuba's communist President Fidel Castro.

But Chavez is still a reminder of the late Nobel author Octavio Paz's lament that Latin America's revolutions are inevitably "squandered in violent agitation." His 1998 landslide election overthrew one of the world's most rotten political systems, but he seems incorrigibly wedded to a bellicose and autocratic style that many fear could eventually evolve into a left-wing dictatorship like Cuba's. Chavez recently threatened to seize businesses that close for whole days to protest his erratic government. His neighborhood organizations, the Bolivarian Circles, do aid the poor, but they sometimes morph into armed gangs like the ones caught on videotape shooting at opposition civilians just before the coup. And though a recent Venezuelan Supreme Court ruling that exonerated the military officers who led last April's coup was dubious, it's hard to image that Lincoln — or Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century "Liberator" of South America who is Chavez's demigod hero — would have approved of his virulent campaign to remove the justices. "Venezuela is sitting on a barrel of gunpowder," warns Carlos Ortega, who is head of the nation's largest labor union but has become one of Chavez's fiercest opponents. "People can't take this anymore."

Yet polls say Chavez, whose term ends in 2007, would win a referendum on his presidency, which, under Venezuela's new constitution, he is not required to call until next August. The impoverished masses who march for him, and who had little if no voice in pre-Chavez Venezuela, are the key to his resilience, just as Brazil's exasperated poor, fed up with the unfulfilled promises of a decade of capitalist reforms in Latin America, are likely to vote Workers Party candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva into the presidency next week. "The oligarchs in this country just want to demonize Chavez because he's giving our class the chance to participate in the economic and political life of Venezuela for once," said Yosmari Guevara, 29, a bakery owner in one of Caracas's most squalid slums. She notes that under Chavez's new bank program for micro-businesses, she has received low-interest credit for the first time.

During the two days Chavez was in military custody in April, local TV aired scenes of the nation's venal political elite romping in the Miraflores presidential palace, cocktails in hand, as if it were a country club again. It reminded many Venezuelans of what they elected Chavez to throw out in 1Images like that explain so many Venezuelans still support Chavez. And as long as the oil flows, the U.S. can apparently live with him too — and the beret.

with reporting by Owain Johnson/Caracas