NEW YORK -- It has been my sage observation over some 30 years of interviewing world leaders that the press usually attack them. The journalists are the questioners and complainers, not the other way around.
But when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez came to the United Nations last week for a speech and afterward admitted a few of us to a press briefing, the quixotic Chavez did things a little differently -- and perhaps that should have been expected.
Stalking into the room at the Venezuelan Mission on 46th Street, Chavez looked for all the world the vengeful enforcer, the raging godfather, the paranoid-in-winter. His once-handsome and controlled face was dark and brooding, his eyes tight and wary as he constantly scanned the room.
What was left of his nervous restraint broke down completely at the first question from a Latin female journalist: "Why is it that so many say you are capricious and ineffective?"
"It is very difficult for me to talk about myself," he began, before speaking for nearly 25 minutes about himself. "Not only do they call me 'capricious and arbitrary,' but they call me an 'assassin ... Hitler ... Mussolini ...' I believe that I am the victim of a psychological war. I am in the laboratory, and you on the radio and in the newspapers, you repeat it over and over, as if I were Jack the Ripper. If you repeat the 'big lie' 10 times, or a thousand times, people will begin to believe it."
Why, he asked, do so many Americans tell him that he is the "enemy of America"? He told us that he said to people in New York: "I am not an enemy; it is the information you are getting. For instance, I was in Baghdad last year, and I was riding around in a car driven by Saddam. How could I know that no president of any country had gone there since the Gulf War? I was also in Riyadh, in Doha, in Djakarta, with other presidents, but nobody was interested in that.
"I met with the pope three times, and that was never published anywhere."
Then this man who has called the Roman Catholic Church in Venezuela a "tumor on Venezuelan society" suddenly proclaimed to the journalists, many of whom were looking more than slightly stunned: "I am a Catholic!" Pregnant pause. "My mama wanted me to be a priest." At this, he began humming the Mass. "And I am a Christian," he added. He suddenly took a small silver cross out of his pocket, kissed it vigorously and began to sing robustly, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."
"They've made me into a devil," he said a little later. He paused, and an ambivalent small smile played around his lips. "Perhaps," he added, "we need an exorcist."
Other stories were told that late afternoon, many of them about Fidel Castro, whom Chavez constantly referred to emotionally as "my friend!" But after seven weeks of upheaval, violence and oil strikes in his country, the Venezuelan opposition are not his "friends" at all.
"They ought to be in prison, those terrorists of these last few weeks," he stated in an obviously disturbed voice. "Why are they here and not in prison? I have political power, but I am not a dictator -- otherwise, I would have shot them! In other times, they would have shot them in the patio of the military barracks. Shot them! That has not happened in Venezuela."
With disdain and derision virtually dripping from his words, he added, "You can see what quality of opposition we have in Venezuela -- a bunch of fascists!"
At this point, he looked very deliberately at the reporters whom he knew were from Latin America, directing his remarks particularly to Brazil and Ecuador, where fellow leftist leaders of his have just been elected to the presidencies. "It's fascism, brothers!" he went on. "Because tomorrow it could be you. Until now, the rich have given us presidents, and the rich have taken them away. This is the war of the end of the century, the war of the end of the world. I will fight to the death."
And all the while -- the meeting went on for most of an hour and a half in the early winter's evening -- the Venezuelan president carefully and suspiciously checked off each questioner on a media list prepared for him by his information officers in order to know who was who.
As I watched and listened, I could not help but compare this man of dark rages and apocalyptic visions to the Hugo Chavez I had interviewed in Caracas only four years ago, just before he was elected president of the country. Much thinner, infinitely sunnier and charming, Chavez then spoke only about peacefully reforming the country in its own historic Venezuelan way. "There isn't any model," he told me then, "certainly not Cuba or the Soviet Union. We don't copy other models, we invent them."
But in these four years, Hugo Chavez has gone completely to the left. Fidel is his best friend and, despite his fulminations to the contrary, the pope is not. After seven weeks of oil company and other strikes that have paralyzed the country, Chavez is at total war with the opposition, which is a melange of substantial middle-class people, trade unionists and businessmen, but also leftover politicians from the two "democratic" parties that ruined and scavenged the oil-rich country for 40 years.
This same week, a "friends" group made up of the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Spain and Portugal has been formed to try to broker a peace settlement between Chavez and the opposition. But one has to wonder whether it is too late. The sense of the Venezuelan crisis, from the Chavez left, is that they are in an all-out push for revolution, no longer for reform. The opposition seems to plan no further ahead than the next day's demonstration -- and every day, those demonstrations grow more violent, more obdurate and more dangerous.
From Caracas, the message is that it is too late for negotiations. The world oil markets have been shaken by the cutoff of Venezuelan oil. An estimated 50 percent of small businesses are in danger of collapse. "Here, there is a clash of systems," the Venezuelan scholar Alberto Garrido, a specialist on Chavez's philosophy, was quoted as saying this week in The Washington Post, "something that neither (the Organization of American States) nor the United States understands. For this reason, no negotiation is possible."
If Chavez believes what he has said, that the country's public and private institutions must be broken down in order for his revolution to take root in Venezuelan soil, that appears to be what is happening in that important Latin American country. If so, the United States and the world could be up against a war even more bizarre and threatening than Hugo Chavez's words.
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