By five o’clock, the crowd of several thousand had consumed seven hours of speechifying by Chávez supporters and grown hoarse from nearly as much “¡Viva Venezuela!” chanting. It began to grow anxious for the event’s promised climax, when el presidente himself would step in front of the microphones. You would wait around this long, too, and just as eagerly, for as everybody in Venezuela knows, Chávez yields incomparable entertainment.
As the sun began to set behind the stage, Chávez finally appeared. A preternatural showman, he knew better than to head straight to the podium. Instead, he walked to the front edge of the stage, one arm extended toward the crowd, the other holding a microphone. His head was topped with a big-brimmed sombrero, with blue, white, and red embellishments. An entourage of guitarists and horn players, dressed in the ruffled mariachi style, took their place beside him. Before he launched into his own hourlong fire-breathing, anti-imperialist disquisition, the Venezuelan president belted a medley of classic rancheras, a romantic genre of Mexican folk music:
I’m not a gold coin to be liked by everyone
that’s the way I was born
and that’s the way I am
and if they don’t like me
… it doesn’t matter.
The performance was characteristic. As a young solider, Chávez emceed a beauty pageant, and at certain moments in his presidency, he has resembled nothing so much as one of the hosts of the variety shows that Latin Americans adore. On his weekly television program, Aló Presidente, he spends hours recounting tall tales of his youth, reciting poetry, and conducting Dick Cavett–style interviews of left-wing guests, from Harry Belafonte to Fidel Castro. He once rode an Iranian-built bicycle around the show’s set to highlight his country’s economic ties to the Islamic Republic.
Chávez’s antics have inspired considerable confusion. Among the Venezuelan upper classes and opposition, there has long been a tendency to dismiss him as something of a buffoon, an uneducated provincial lacking in self-control and basic manners. Washington, for a time, adopted a variation of this dismissive line. The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela during the Clinton era, John Maisto, discouraged searching for significance in Chávez’s bombastic, sometimes bizarre, public appearances. “Watch what Chávez does, not what he says,” Maisto declared.
But Chávez is not just a clown with some oil money in his pocket. He is a deliberate strategic thinker—ham-fisted at times, but also capable of tactical brilliance.
The proximate cause of the rally I attended was a confrontation with Mexican President Vicente Fox. While Fox had joined George W. Bush in championing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or FTAA, a kind of hemispheric NAFTA, Chávez had proposed an alternative trade agreement that would exclude the United States. Several weeks before the rally, Latin America’s leaders had discussed the two plans at a presidential summit in Argentina. Later, on his television show, Chávez showed mysteriously obtained footage of Fox making his argument for the FTAA in private. He then denounced Fox as a “lapdog of the empire,” a taunt designed to highlight the Mexican president’s ties to the Bush administration. “Don’t mess with me, sir, or you will get stung,” Chávez blustered. A diplomatic crisis ensued. Fox demanded an apology. Chávez refused to provide one. Ambassadors were recalled.