''Oh," said an acquaintance in a rather surprised voice, "so you take a reasonably favourable view of Hugo Chavez." "Well, yes," I stammered, "he was elected to office fairly, he's popular and he's trying to reform a once-moribund society."
A few days earlier, I had been in an ante-room at the square, white Miraflores Palace in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. I was chatting with one of President Chavez's secretaries, who was abruptly called away. "Back soon," he said. I knew what that meant and, after an hour or two chatting to the staff, I left. Would I never see the man of mixed race who was so despised by the whites and near-whites of Venezuela, but who was making so many tongues wag all over the western hemisphere?
I needn't have worried: the full Chavez experience was around the corner. He had summoned a meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS), a generator of hot air based in Washington, DC. He wanted this glove puppet of the United States to create a social charter for the hemisphere and start doing something about its startling inequalities. So, the following day we trooped over to the tropical splendour of the Hilton hotel to watch and hear a powerful personality in full flow. The ideas and plans tumbled out like sparks off a grinding wheel - the people of Latin America given the right to eat as well as vote; cheap oil for the poor of the US; free literacy classes and free eyecare for everyone in the western hemisphere; an international referendum on US sanctions against Cuba; the replacement of the OAS by something that would reflect Latin rather than US interests . . .
Watching him perform, one realised he was not only younger, but more vigorous, concrete and coherent than his friend and mentor Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader (whom I have met sev-eral times) is, after all, in his twilight years. Next day, there was Chavez on IAlo, Presidente!, his regular Sunday television show. Then he reappeared to give Jesse Jackson a medal. On each occasion the ideas poured out, jostling each other for attention.
Perhaps it's because Hugo Chavez will never use one word when a thousand will do and his rhetoric is not very British; perhaps it's because he was a paratroop colonel and likes to wear a plum-coloured beret; perhaps it's because he takes a dim view of the US not shared by some European bien-pensants; perhaps it is merely because he is a practitioner in the deeply devalued discipline of Latin American politics. For whatever reason, foreigners rarely see Chavez for what he is: one of the most popular and powerful political figures in the western hemisphere, seeking to build a basic welfare state on democratic foundations. He won 56 per cent of the vote in the 1998 multi-party presidential elections; then the new constitution he proposed was approved in December 1999 by 72 per cent of the vote; then he won a new six-year mandate in 2000 with 59 per cent; then he won a referendum last year, again with 59 per cent. Now he faces multi-party elections in December 2006.
Since he was first elected, Chavez has kept the voters' loyalty and begun forcing through reforms that economists in European governments, at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund merely write about, but never expect to see put into practice. He can afford to do it. With oil at $70 a barrel and reserves possibly bigger than Saudi Arabia's, Venezuela is swimming in money, and that has given the president the option of tackling a scandal of concentrated wealth amid widespread indigence.
Despite many decades of fat oil earnings, a series of corrupt but ostensibly democratic governments had left well over half of Venezuela's 25 million citizens in poverty. Chavez has attacked this mess frontally in assaults that he calls "missions". Mision Barrio Adentro, for instance, the scheme to get medical help to slum-dwellers, has mobilised 20,000 Cuban doctors, dentists and auxiliary staff whose services are paid for by Venezuela's cut-price oil sales to Cuba. In Caracas, and in towns and villages previously without permanent doctors or health services, the Cubans have built their modulos, small octagonal brick structures with an office on the ground floor and a cramped flat on the first floor. There, they have dispensed Cuban drugs and practised the preventive medicine that Venezuelan doctors, who rarely passed by, refused to consider.
"There was no money in preventive medicine, so Venezuelan doctors didn't do it," says Edgar of the health workers' union. Meanwhile, under Operation Miracle, thousands have been flown to Cuba for free eye operations.
Soon, Chavez promises, Mision Robinson, a reading and basic numeracy scheme, will herald the end of illiteracy in Venezuela. Mision Ribas gives secondary-school drop-outs a second chance with a two-year course and a small bursary. Twelve million poorer Venezuelans have access to cheap or free food through Mision Mercal. It's all part, he says, of "21st-century socialism".
Unlike Castro, Chavez has the money to establish real education, health and welfare, and not just for Venezuelans; he can afford to do much of the same abroad. Before long, Operation Miracle will be offering eye treatment to 600,000 patients a year throughout the western hemisphere for ten years, with the aim of saving the sight of six million people at no cost to them. Places have been reserved for 150,000 US citizens per year.
It is no surprise that Chavez challenges the ideas of the White House and US Department of State, and is detested by those who fear his reforms. There have already been determined domestic attempts to overthrow him, most notably in April 2002. The cock-eyed scheme involved the rather dim head of Fedecamaras, Venezuela's equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry, claiming to restore democracy and then closing Congress, dissolving the Supreme Court and sacking the elected provincial governors and mayors. The aspiring dictator, Pedro Carmona Estanga, had the backing of most of the press and television networks, whose biased anti-Chavez coverage made Rupert Murdoch's hard-right Fox News look like BBC Radio 3. Happily, the coup failed after 48 hours. The plotters were supremely incompetent, an inexpert US ambassador who for weeks had been in on the plot hesitated, and the crowds on the streets demanded an end to the unlawful detention of the man Venezuelans had freely chosen to lead them.
With the opposition unable to demonstrate any serious flaws in the voting procedures, Chavez's legitimacy is unassailable. Latinbarometro, a reliable public opinion survey of the region, found that Venezuela is the country where "the fewest people believe that the country is being governed for the few, and where the most believe that it is governed for the good of the people". The president has given voters hope, managing simultaneously to push down infant mortality and raise life expectancy.
The nationalists in the US have serious reason to be nervous and trigger-happy, as they used to be with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Chavez hopes that his Bolivarian revolution will rekindle the desire for Latin American unity expressed by the Venezuelan hero Simon BolIvar two centuries ago, which could threaten the US mastery over the western hemisphere that Washington has sought to maintain for 150 years. Precautions are being taken in Venezuela. Despite protests from the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, Spain and Russia are selling Chavez guns and ships, the armed forces are being put on a higher state of alert, and a few hundred office workers have been given training as the pioneer members of a new Dad's Army that should ultimately be capable of backing up the regulars all over the country.
But Chavez, one feels, is not relying on his forces to defeat his opponents at home and abroad. The largesse with cut-price oil and the ambitious international aid programmes should bring support from other governments - or at least their electorates - if new attempts were made to topple him. Yet is Chavez doing enough to fight the great Venezuelan tradition of corruption? Is he keeping power too closely concentrated in the hands of his kitchen cabinet? Why isn't there a better party structure? Worries persist.
The other day, for instance, we all came out of the vast Teresa Carreno Theatre into the warm evening air in sombre mood. It had been the inauguration of the Three Continents Festival of Documentaries, and we had been watching Patricio Guzman's powerful film about Salvador Allende and the part the US played in his overthrow. "Has what we've just seen about Chile in 1973 and Allende got any relevance to Venezuela in 2005 and your President Hugo Chavez?" I asked people at random. They looked at me as if I were stupid. "Claro - of course. That's exactly what Bush is trying to do now," they replied unfailingly.
The US government has not disavowed Pastor Marion "Pat" Robertson, the millionaire politician and businessman who in August called for the assassination of Chavez. The Venezuelan's ideas and strategies are bold and long overdue, but he is vulnerable. Should he not think harder about how they will be implemented if he disappears before his time is due?