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Words and Oil Gush from Chavez's Venezuela

By Pascal Fletcher |

18.04.05 | Posted Fri Apr 15, 2005 04:14 PM ET | CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - "Sit down," Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told me, irritation flaring in his voice. I had dared to interrupt His Excellency the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as he lectured foreign journalists during a news conference at Miraflores Palace.

Not for the first time, the mercurial left-wing leader whom critics and admirers call the new Fidel Castro had failed to answer the question.

Since he was first elected in 1998 to lead the world's number five oil exporter, words have gushed from Chavez's mouth as thickly and pungently as the heavy crude that is Venezuela's lifeblood.

His speeches are often meandering marathons lasting hours in which the president, who claims inspiration from Latin America's 19th century liberator Simon Bolivar, dabbles in the divine and the ridiculous.

He is as much at home presenting himself as the reincarnation of Bolivar or a modern-day messenger of Christ, as he is berating his enemies -- these days usually the U.S. -- or cracking jokes about the wart on his head.

Reporting his public appearances can be a mind-numbing endurance test, made worse by his chronic unpunctuality.

You can risk wrist cramp by taking hand-written notes of his encyclopedic speeches, but the least attractive option must surely be playing back the tape, a severe strain to a brain already befuddled by hours of unrelenting rhetoric.

And woe betide if you let your attention slip -- in that second Chavez may dismiss a key minister or drop his latest verbal bombshell about OPEC or oil supplies to the U.S.. -- and you probably need to send a news alert.

Getting a straight answer is also a challenge. If you do manage to interrupt his word flow, he is likely to knock you down with all the gusto of a Latin American baseball hitter playing in the U.S. leagues. "That's your opinion," he says.

And if you're the duty reporter in Caracas on a weekend, you can forget about a relaxing Sunday lunch with family or friends. Most of your day will be taken up with covering Chavez's weekly Sunday live television show "Hello President."

This show, sometimes lasting seven straight hours, resembles a Medieval court -- presided over by the red-shirted "monarch" himself.

Often, Chavez plays the buffoon, breaking into song or reciting poetry.

After more than four years in Caracas, I can complete most of his jokes and anecdotes before he finishes them, and even sing along to his favorite tunes.

I've also learned a lot of Venezuelan history, since the president delights in telling everyone about his favorite figures. A red-blooded nationalist, Chavez invariably prefers those who defied foreign "imperialism."

Sometimes, his antics descend into comic opera. Days before a 2002 coup that briefly toppled him, Chavez, blowing a soccer referee's whistle, sacked top state oil firm managers on TV.

"Pheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Offside! You're sacked, Mr So and So!" he yelled, giggling at his own performance.

Four days later, rebel generals and admirals ousted him after at least 19 people were killed by gunmen amid scenes of mayhem during a huge opposition march to the palace.

But 48 hours afterwards he was swept back into power by supporters from Caracas' slums and loyal military commanders who reversed the bumbling coup without firing a shot.

These were days of confusion as phalanxes of anti-Chavez uniformed officers -- faces stern, hands crossed over their chests or knees -- appeared on TV to denounce the president. Others, striking a similar pose, came on to pledge support for him.

All, without exception, declared they were fighting for the Constitution. In Latin America this is a sure sign of trouble.

I have vivid memories, too, of covering street clashes between supporters and foes of Chavez. Few experiences are more disturbing than hearing the repeated crack of gunshots, seeing the panic-stricken crowd scatter in every direction and stumbling on bleeding bodies on the pavement, without having a clue who is shooting or from where.

Chavez went on to survive a crippling opposition strike that -- almost inconceivably for Venezuela, where gasoline is cheaper than bottled water -- dried up gas station supplies.

Chavez often seems to have difficulty controlling a hot-blooded country where events are unpredictable.

Who would have thought the kidnappers of a top Colombian rebel snatched in Caracas last December would turn out to be members of Chavez's own "revolutionary" armed forces acting as rogue bounty hunters in the pay of Colombia's police?

In the land of oil and beauty queens, and now revolution, money may still talk louder than ideology.

Or as one private banker -- no friend of Chavez -- put it: "With this Revolution, I'm making more money than ever."

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