President Chavez believes only democratic socialism can save the world
By Stephen Sackur
Presenter, BBC HARDtalk
Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez intends to inject new urgency into his socialist and anti-imperialist revolution, claiming "capitalism is destroying the world".
In a combative 60-minute interview with the BBC HARDtalk programme in the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas, Mr Chavez blamed Venezuela's deepening recession on the irresponsible economic policies of the United States.
He also expressed disappointment with President Barack Obama's "very negative signals" towards Latin America.
"In Colombia (the Americans) are building seven military bases; that is one of the very negative signals that Obama sent just after taking office," Mr Chavez said.
"Bush decided to reactivate the US Fourth Fleet to operate in Latin America. Obama, instead of suspending or getting rid of the Fourth Fleet has seven military bases planned in Colombia. What for? Is it to go to war, to dominate the Latin American continent?"
Colombia has signed a deal to give the US military access to seven Colombian bases with the aim to combat drug trafficking and rebels.
It caused alarm among some of Colombia's neighbours, including Venezuela, who object to an increased US military presence.
"I wish Obama would focus on governing the United States and would forget his country's imperialist pretensions," Mr Chavez said.
While there was no repeat of the insults he hurled at George W Bush, such as "donkey," "devil" and "terrorist", President Chavez indicated that the high-profile handshake he and Obama shared at an Americas summit last year had not resolved fundamental differences.
The 55-year-old Venezuelan president rarely grants extended interviews to the Western media. This one was arranged to coincide with the premiere in Caracas of a new documentary by Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone.
The film, South of the Border, portrays Latin America being transformed by Leftist radicalism.
The leaders of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador all get walk-on parts, but it is to Mr Chavez that Stone gives the starring role.
The director and the president shared a limousine to the red carpet launch of the film in Caracas's national theatre.
President Chavez is a key figure in Oliver Stone's film South of the Border
"What's been going on in Venezuela for the last 10 years is amazing - a piece of history. The least I can do is introduce this man and this movement to the American people," said Stone, with a beaming Chavez by his side.
Whether many Venezuelans will ever see South of the Border remains unclear.
The premiere was full of Socialist party bigwigs and activists who hooted with delight as their president was seen lambasting Bush, beating off a coup attempt in 2002 and generally adopting the mantle of a 21st Century Castro.
But no amount of support from the American filmmaker can disguise a simple truth; domestic support for President Chavez's "Bolivarian" socialism (named in homage to Latin America's 19th Century liberator Simon Bolivar) is being sorely tested by a second consecutive year of economic recession.
Venezuela possesses the biggest reserves of oil outside the Middle East and supplies more than one-tenth of US oil imports, but still the economy has woefully underperformed against others in Latin America in the last two years.
Inflation has leapt to 30% and seems likely to rise further. The Venezuelan currency has been devalued and is still sinking amongst Caracas's black market money changers.
'Road to hell'
In the capital's sprawling hillside neighbourhoods, jobs are scarce and Mr Chavez's Socialist party is looking electorally vulnerable just three months before National Assembly elections.
Chavez: US 'military imperialism' in Latin America
In his HARDtalk interview, the president blamed his country's economic woes squarely on America's "rampant, irresponsible capitalism" which was taking the world "on the road to hell".
"In England and in Europe you should know this," Mr Chavez went on. "'You have more problems than we do."
He quoted a stream of economic statistics to illustrate his claim that 11 years of socialism had "begun to redress the balance between a very rich Venezuelan minority and a very poor majority."
He said unemployment had been halved, extreme poverty was down from 25% to just 5%.
Domestic critics of Mr Chavez's nationalisation programme - which has turned the oil, power and agriculture sectors into vast state bureaucracies - accuse him of creating a "Bolivarian bourgeoisie" of corrupt officials and cronies.
But Mr Chavez emphasised he intended to go further with his socialist model.
Privately owned enterprises are now being expropriated with increasing frequency - a recent controversial example involved the French-owned Exito supermarket chain after allegations of profiteering and currency manipulation.
"Eleven years ago I was quite gullible," the president said. "I even believed in a 'third way'. I thought it was possible to put a human face on capitalism. But I was wrong.
"The only way to save the world is through socialism, but a socialism that exists within a democracy. There's no dictatorship here."
Mr Chavez became visibly agitated when faced with a set of specific questions about his government's respect for the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press and the rights of political opponents.
Baduel has become a rallying point for Venezuela's opposition
He was asked about the imprisonment of one of his fiercest critics, former defence minister Raul Baduel, and the pending charges filed against former opposition candidate Oswaldo Alvarez Paz.
The Venezuelan president responded: "You don't know what you're saying. Wow, does the BBC in London defend corruption. You are being used. You really don't know what you're saying."
As the tension in the presidential palace rose, Oliver Stone who was seated in a corner listening intently to the exchanges - along with a host of presidential aides and one of the president's daughters - gestured to the president with both hands.
The message was easy to read: Calm down.
Venezuelans are used to seeing an angry president. Last week he went on television to vent his fury on a judge who ruled that a wealthy businessman should be freed from detention after three years of imprisonment without trial.
Mr Chavez accused the judge, Maria Afiuni, of behaving worse than an assassin and he demanded that she be jailed for 30 years. Judge Afiuni is now in prison facing corruption charges.
'Axis of unity'
It is not President Chavez's domestic record that most concerns Western governments, it's his determination to create an "axis of unity" with countries he sees as fellow strugglers against American and Western imperialism.
He lists the leaders of China, Russia, Syria and Belarus as "good friends", along with President Ahmedinejad of Iran.
I am not Obama's enemy but it's difficult not to see imperialism in Washington. Those who don't see it, don't want to see it
In the last three years Tehran and Caracas have strengthened military and intelligence cooperation while deepening their trade ties, and Mr Chavez responded indignantly to the latest round of UN sanctions on Tehran.
"Venezuela is a free country and we will not be blackmailed by anyone," he said.
"We will not accept being told what to do over Iran, we will not accept being anyone's colony".
But he categorically denied claims frequently aired in the US that Venezuela is supplying Iran with uranium.
His disappointment with Barack Obama was expressed in highly personal terms.
"I shook Obama's hand and I said, 'I want to be your friend'. My hand is still outstretched.
"I am not Obama's enemy but it's difficult not to see imperialism in Washington. Those who don't see it, don't want to see it, like the ostrich."
The Venezuelan President did have a dialogue with the last Democrat in the White House, and that memory seems to have sharpened his disillusion with Obama.
"I said to Hillary Clinton in front of President Obama, 'I wish I could enjoy the same relationship with a US president that I had when your husband was in power.'"
President Chavez refused to say whether he would seek another term in elections scheduled for 2012. Though few doubt that he will, having pushed through the abolition of term-limits in a hard-fought referendum.
"Fidel has spent his whole life on his (revolution)," Chavez reflected. "Whatever life I have left I will dedicate to this peaceful democratic revolution in Venezuela."
You can watch HARDtalk from Venezuela on Monday 14 June and the interview with President Chavez on Tuesday 15 June on the BBC News Channel at 0230, 0430 and 2330 BST and on BBC World News at 0330, 0830, 1530 and 2030 GMT.
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