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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 October 2005, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Hugo Chavez: Charming provocateur
By Robin Lustig
BBC News, Paris

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez talking to BBC's Robin Lustig
Hugo Chavez says his enemies are imperialism and capitalism
I'd been warned in advance: President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela likes giving very long answers when he faces interviewers.

One colleague helpfully told me that he'd been present on one occasion when the president had spent a full hour on one answer.

So please, Mr President, I said as we sat down in his hotel suite, could you try to keep your answers as short as possible? He was a lamb: every answer concise, lucid and to the point.

To the poor of Venezuela, who make up the vast majority of the population, President Chavez is a hero.

He first won election in 1998 and has since spent countless millions of dollars on developing social welfare programmes to bring clinics and schools to where before there were none.

'Dangerous demagogue'

But to his political opponents, and to the Bush administration in Washington, he is a dangerous demagogue, who allies himself with such American hate-regimes as those of Cuba and Iran.

Put him in front of the BBC television cameras, however, and he is charm personified.

Of course, he says, he would love to be on better terms with the US - and he pays glowing tribute to the people of that country - but with George Bush in the White House, there's no chance of that.

He refuses to be drawn into criticising the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, even though he has just paid warm tribute to President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who compared Bush and Blair to Hitler and Mussolini, forming an alliance to invade innocent countries.

'Bolivarian revolution'

Hugo Chavez smiles a lot - or at least he does when he's talking to this interviewer.

He's keen to explain the principles underlying his "Bolivarian revolution", named after the great Latin American hero of the 19th century, Simon Bolivar.

And he insists that no-one - no, not even George Bush - has any reason to fear him.

His enemies are imperialism and capitalism. But how, I ask, can he ignore the tide of globalisation? I am a socialist, he says, and I follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, who was the first socialist, just as Judas was the first capitalist.

Perhaps because we're recording the interview in Paris, while he's on an official visit to France, President Chavez often quotes the 19th century French writer Victor Hugo and his hugely influential novel about poverty and oppression Les Miserables (now a musical of the same name).

So if I were a wealthy Venezuelan capitalist, should I fear Hugo Chavez?

Of course not, he says. No one has anything to fear. He fights against poverty and injustice. The rich can look after themselves.

And now, if we'll excuse him, he must go to pay his respects to President Chirac.


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