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20 May 2002

Hello again, Mr President

Justin Webster meets Hugo Chavez, the in-out-in ruler of Venezuela, and finds he still fears for his

By Justin Webster

Heightened security around Hugo Chavez, the maverick president of Venezuela, is just one hint of the fragility of his grip on power, despite his dramatic and popular reinstatement a month after the military coup that ousted him from government.

Chavez is convinced that he had a narrow escape from death during the coup on 11 April, which left 17 Venezuelans dead on the streets. And he believes there are still plots afoot to assassinate him.

“In those moments when I was captive, out of contact, taken at night to an inhospitable place by the sea, I thought they were going to kill me. There are people who want to kill me, and I thought this was their opportunity,” he confided later.

But when, after days of waiting and last-minute changes to our interview plans, I eventually meet Chavez at his official home, it is impossible to guess from his cheerful, confident manner that he still faces determined opposition, and even hatred, from influential sectors of Venezuelan society and the international community.

Allegations of Chavez’s friendliness with left-wing guerrillas in neighbouring Colombia, just as the United States is committing fresh funds to the fight against terrorism there, as well as his cordial relations with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, have made him particularly distrusted in Washington. Immediately after the coup crumbled and Chavez unexpectedly emerged from captivity to resume power, the US national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, sent a blunt message of disapproval.

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“I hope he takes advantage of this opportunity to right his own ship, which has been moving in the wrong direction, frankly, for quite a long time,” she said.

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Instead of appearing suitably chastened, Chavez is demanding that the Bush administration revise its view of him as the menace of the Americas: “They have been manipulated in Washington. They are the victims of lies. I hope that, after all that has happened, Washington, too, will realise that those who believe that I support the Colombian guerrillas, or that I support terrorism, are completely mistaken.”

Chavez is clearly aware that his best weapon against American pressure is the embarrassing haste with which Washington was prepared to recognise an undemocratic government created by an old-fashioned military coup.

“There are at least two elements that I think it is very important to clarify to the world. First, I have proof that two officials of the United States armed forces were in the building with the coup leaders during the crucial hours on at least one occasion. I have the names of the two officials on record, at what time they went in and with whom they talked. This must be clarified,” he says.

He also claims to have satellite pictures of a warship and a military helicopter inside Venezuelan waters, as well as images of two military aeroplanes which flew over Venezuelan airspace from the north. The US State Department has denied any part in the overthrow but, at the very least, it was on amicable terms with its orchestrators.

Much more of a threat than the Americans, however, are Chavez’s sworn enemies at home. Rear Admiral Carlos Molina, a rising member of the military establishment, continues to predict his imminent fall. Despite facing charges for his involvement in the coup, Molina has called on Chavez to step down in order to prevent the country from sliding into civil war.

“He is sustained by a layer of thin air, and he doesn’t realise it,” says Molina at a meeting in Caracas in the company of his lawyer. “He is a criminal. He is a figure who did not work out in our democracy. He should have the honour to realise that and go.”

Molina and the 80 officers behind the coup were convinced that they had, and can continue to count on, “international” support. The admiral’s open defiance and willingness to speak out is a sign of the government’s vulnerability.

An investigation by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organisation of American States (OAS) has not been able to determine who was responsible for the killings. The opposition claims it was the pro-Chavez Bolivarian Circles that opened fire; Chavez says unspecified “foreigners” are being held.

Chavez tried to shut down private broadcasters just before the violence, but the OAS has also identified a politically motivated news blackout, imposed by the Venezuelan media themselves.

As much as his policies, it is Chavez’s messianic, freewheeling speeches that infuriate his critics in the middle and upper classes. On Sunday mornings he continues to broadcast his own television programme, Hello, Mr President, a phone-in that can last up to five hours. Before the coup he would often produce the show from poor barrios, where he was feted as a hero.

Earlier this month, it was transmitted from the safety of the Miraflores Palace, where he appeared before the nation sporting casual designer gear and sitting at an antique desk under the columns of the palace courtyard. In the course of this incredible performance, he broke into song, announced a cabinet reshuffle and chatted over the phone with his new minister of defence, General Lucas Rincon, the very man who declared in April that Chavez had resigned and was leaving for exile in Cuba – a version of events the president vehemently denies.

In Catia, the vast poor suburb of shanties blotting out the green hills on the edge of Caracas, Hugo Chavez can still count on fervent support. “He is noble and he loves the people,” says Jorge LuIs La Torre, 38, a fruit seller who is setting up his stall, with his wife and six small children, on a flyover next to a strip of wasteland. La Torre estimates that 70 per cent of the residents of Catia are “Chavistas”, living in poverty. They have identified with the president’s “Bolivarian revolution” as a hope-inspiring creed. And they can point to important improvements: the state schools provide two meals a day and healthcare is free.

But in the uptown shopping malls it is almost impossible to find a Chavez supporter. The rich complain that they are being made to feel like outcasts in their own country. It is not a role reversal they are likely to accept quietly. With the plotters unrepentant, Chavez recognises the risk of civil war.

“I have great faith in God, and I am working day and night to disactivate the generators of conflict, so that the country does not go back to chaos, but to calm,” he says. At the moment he must do this from the safety of the palace, keeping one eye on the generals. He is still a long way from being able to exploit his populist touch once again in public.