It's no surprise that the first thing Hugo Chávez offers me as we sit down for an interview is a cup of coffee. Chávez is a renowned caffeine fanatic, known for downing as many as two dozen small cups a day. Venezuelans speculate that it's one reason their President is so prone to impulsive diatribes like the one he delivered at the U.N. General Assembly last week, in which he accused President George W. Bush of being the "devil" and leaving a satanic "smell of sulfur" in the U.N. hall. Chávez wasn't done. A few hours before he met me, he gave a speech in Harlem in which he called Bush an "alcoholic."
But by the time he arrived at Venezuela's U.N. mission last Thursday, Hurricane Hugo had lost some of his bluster. On the basis of two previous meetings with Chávez, I expected him to be considerably less strident when sitting over a cup of guayoyo (a Venezuelan-style cup of coffee) than while standing at a lectern. Indeed, when an aide reminded him that my wife is Venezuelan, he asked to see pictures of her and our kids. He seemed genuinely surprised when I informed him that rebukes were pouring in from liberals in the U.S. Congress over the way he insulted Bush on U.S. soil. "Bush has called me worse," Chávez said, with a shrug. "Tyrant, populist dictator, drug trafficker, to name a few. I was simply telling a truth that people should know about this President, a man with gigantic power that no one seems to be braking."
Chávez, 52, believes it's his destiny to be the leftist David who puts the brakes on what he calls Bush's imperialist Goliath--not just in Venezuela, which has the hemisphere's largest oil reserves, but in Latin America and the world. In his eight years as President, Chávez has gone from a backwater strongman to a genuine global player, capitalizing on sky-high oil prices to spread his influence across Latin America and to win attention when he denounces the Bush Administration. That has made Caracas a hot destination for leftist tourists, bolstered Chávez's celebrity cachet--he counts Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte as friends--and made him the most visible Latin leader since Fidel Castro. But his rhetorical excesses, like his antics at the U.N., allow his critics to dismiss him as a buffoonish pretender. It was a sign of how badly his act played in New York City last week that even Democratic Representative Charles Rangel, a harsh critic of Bush's, went out of his way to tell Chávez that "you don't come into my country, you don't come into my congressional district and ... condemn my President."