When Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela, talks about the Bush Administration, he does so with invective that can be both bellicose and sophomoric. Since he became President in 1999, Chávez has publicly, in Spanish, called Bush an a______who is trying to assassinate him. He has referred to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as an "illiterate" who has a crush on him. Chávez often airs his attacks on Aló Presidente, a weekly, hours-long television call-in show from the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas. His fulminations are such a hit with Venezuelan supporters that Chávez has broadened his audience. During a recent live broadcast, he exhorted people across the region to join his anti-U.S. campaign. "Latin America," he said, "is done kneeling to take orders from the White House."
Hearing that bluster, one might assume that Chávez fancies himself a 21st century Fidel Castro. Chávez does idolize Castro, rarely missing an opportunity to be seen with the Cuban leader--like last week, when, with Castro at his side, he announced a regional "solidarity" fund to give cash-strapped Caribbean countries cheaper access to Venezuelan oil. Although Chávez was democratically elected, he flirts with autocracy. And he indulges in Castroesque paranoia about the U.S.: This summer Venezuelan civilians are training alongside the army in antiaircraft and antitank warfare so they will be able to thwart the next Bay of Pigs.
Yet for all that, Chávez is not, so far, a dictator. But he has one thing that Castro did not, and that is why his rhetoric is being taken more seriously from the barrios of Caracas to the hallways of Washington. Chávez controls the hemisphere's largest oil reserves and is the U.S.'s fourth largest foreign supplier. As oil prices hit $60 per bbl. this summer, his government reaped a multibillion-dollar windfall. Chávez has used that, and his rising prestige in the region, to lead a political shift in Latin America that is buzzing like a Che Guevara souvenir convention. With the Bush Administration tied up in the global war on terrorism, Chávez and his allies have mounted an assault on U.S.-backed free-market reforms that are allegedly widening the gap between the region's rich and poor. Since Chávez was elected in 1998 (and again in a special 2000 election), leftist leaders like him have taken power or are leading voter polls in eight countries, including the two largest, Brazil and Mexico. The most recent domino to fall was Bolivia. Last month an uprising by indigenous citizens demanding the nationalization of the country's natural-gas reserves toppled the President, Bolivia's second to go in less than two years. Says Evo Morales, the rebellion's leftist leader, who is a favorite to win a presidential election later this year: "Chávez is our example."
There is so far no evidence that Chávez is financing the rippling revolts. But while the Bush Administration continues to regard Chávez as a "negative force," as Rice calls him, some U.S. officials feel it is time to stop dismissing him as a hothead with a dubious popular mandate--especially because he is likely to win another six-year term next year. Chávez "may be a radical," says a high-ranking U.S. official, "but he's a radical with deep pockets."