Hugo Chavez helps drug barons, backs the Taliban, jails his enemies . . . and hates the middle class. Meet Red Ken's new best friend

By Jonathan Foreman | The Daily Mail

VENEZUELAN President Hugo Chavez was met by a welcome rally of supporters yesterday at the beginning of a two-day visit. Today he will have lunch with London mayor Ken Livingstone and meetings with Leftwing MPs and trade unions. The authoritarian South American has become an icon for the Left - but the truth is that he has exploited his country's oil wealth to launch an onslaught on democracy.

LONDON'S mayor, Ken Livingstone, has befriended some unlikely and unpleasant people over the years, from the Provisional IRA to enthusiasts for Islamist suicide bombing.

But few are as bizarre as Hugo Chavez, the beret-wearing, coup-launching President of Venezuela, whom he is hosting on his current two-day visit to Britain.

Chavez has hit global headlines by supporting Iran's dreams of building nuclear weapons, by befriending North Korea, by subsidising Castro's creaking but still vicious Cuban dictatorship, by cosying up to the Taliban - after September 11 - and by offering a haven to Colombia's narco-terrorists.

In 2001 Chavez paid state visits to Libya, Iran and Iraq, where he was feted by Saddam Hussein. In fact, name a nasty anti-Western regime that supports terrorism or seeks nuclear weapons - or both - and Chavez has probably come out in its favour.

He has also praised Zimbabwe's racist dictator Robert Mugabe as 'a true freedom fighter', called Tony Blair an 'ally of Hitler' for his alliance with George W. Bush, and urged the 'return' of the Falkland Islands to Argentina.

He has threatened the Dutch- owned islands of Aruba and Curacao, and attacked Halloween as an American plot to make his people afraid. At one point he called the terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal 'the greatest living Venezuelan'.

Chavez, 51, has become the latest addition to the romantic Leftwing pantheon that includes Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and the Sandinista boss Daniel Ortega - murderers all. Chavez himself is actually more like Juan and Eva Peron of Argentina in his populism and in the clever way he has turned Venezuela's democracy into a virtual one party state.

In doing so, he has also endeared himself to Left-wingers abroad in one other significant way: with an all-out war on the middle class.

Though democratically elected in 1998, this former army colonel has personal control of the executive, the judiciary, armed forces, education and the oil industry (he indirectly controls the Press through intimidation and self-censorship) all but ensuring his continuation in power for years to come.

BESIDES the fact that it's the world's fifth-largest oil producer (the biggest outside the Middle East), Venezuela has traditionally been more democratic, stable and prosperous than most Latin American countries. In 1971, it had a higher per capita income than Japan.

And unlike many countries in the region, it has - or had - a large middle class. This middle class continued to grow despite socialist policies followed in the Seventies when the oil industry was nationalised, and the shock to its economy when oil prices plunged during the Eighties and Nineties.

But under Chavez professionals, managers and executives have been sacked and replaced with political supporters or army officers. He actively foments popular hatred of the middle classes and upper classes, blaming them, along with America, capitalism and globalisation, for poverty and everything else that is wrong with the country.

Many middleclass people believe that this has contributed to the increase in already sky-high rates of violent crime, especially robbery and kidnapping.

Mass demonstrations and strikes have often been met with brutal violence.

Now business owners and shopkeepers are beginning to emigrate in huge numbers. Though sometimes officials make it hard for them to get passports, there are long lines outside the Spanish, British, U.S., Australian and Canadian consulates.

If his friends in the West think of him as a democrat then they are sorely mistaken.

He joined the army at 17 and while serving he founded his nationalist but Leftwing ' Bolivarian movement'. In 1992, Chavez and some of his army officer friends attempted a coup against the ruling social democratic party. It was a bloody failure and he ended up in prison.

Upon his release, he went into electoral politics at the head of his 'Movement Of The Fifth Republic'.

Its platform and his image - flamboyant, earthy and authentic - struck a chord with the country's poor and he was elected President.

Almost immediately, he called a constitutional convention and began the process of entrenching himself in power. He gave himself sweeping decree powers, abolished the Senate, lifted a ban on consecutive presidential terms and set up an electoral council that he packed with his own supporters.

He made 'lying' about the government a federal crime, and the President is allowed to suspend TV and radio broadcasts 'when it is deemed convenient to the nation'.

It is a criminal offence to insult or show disrespect to the President, other government figures and top military officers. The authorities decide for themselves if they have been 'insulted' or 'disrespected' and anyone convicted of this crime can go to prison for two years.

In 2002, Chavez sought to impose personal control of the country's largest and most successful company, the stateowned oil giant PDVSA. This company was a beacon of efficiency and responsibility in the country. When Chavez sought to impose new management on the company, its employees went on strike.

Chavez fired all of them. Then the country's trade unions called a general strike. More than a million people - mostly from the middle and prosperous working classes - demonstrated against Chavez. Mobs of armed Chavez supporters attacked the demonstrators and killed 17 people.

Then, in December 2002, the opposition shut down the country with another huge general strike that Chavez broke after two months using the army.

When the opposition campaigned for a referendum to depose Chavez, a list of all the 2.5million people who signed the referendum was put on the internet. Everyone on the list became subject to discrimination, ranging from being fired from their jobs to being denied passports.

CHAVEZ is also raising and training a millionandahalf-strong militia, recruited from the slums, supposedly to protect the country against a U.S. invasion, but in fact to create a military force totally loyal to the President.

It doesn't seem to matter to his supporters in Britain that he controls all parts of the government, with 500 top jobs in the hands of his army cronies.

Or that there are more than 200 political prisoners in the country, including a former member of the Venezuelan Confederation of Workers; that dissidents in the armed forces are threatened with death; or that private media organisations have been subject to violent attack by Chavez supporters, usually in the wake of criticism of his government.

If that weren't bad enough, Chavez has also whipped up anti-Jewish prejudice to reinforce his popularity. His police raided a Jewish school in the capital Caracas after one of his top prosecutors died in a car bombing.

But one of Chavez's nastiest and most irresponsible moves has been to offer a safe haven to narco-terrorists from neighbouring Colombia. This has infuriated the Colombians, who have fought a bloody, costly war against the cocaine cartels.

Like so many populist strongmen before him, Chavez has disguised his domestic dictatorship with a constant appeal to anti-Americanism. Of course, bashing America always wins a cheer in Latin America and from the Left around the world.

Here in Britain, it appears to excuse anything, even the flagrant attacks on democracy in a continent that has too little experience of it.

Source The Daily Mail. Originally published May 15, 2006, section ED 1ST 04; Pg. 27