A Castro ally with oil cash vexes the US
Venezuela's Chávez is the new driving force for a left-leaning region.
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It's not hard for Chávez to shrug off criticism these days. Thanks to his 13 "missions" - including ones for literacy, subsidizing food, and issuing identity cards - he is currently enjoying a 70 percent approval rating, according to a Datanalisis poll published earlier this month. It's his highest number in five years. And while 7 of 10 respondents to the poll said they did not want Venezuela to fully imitate the Cuban-style communist system, the percentage was higher than in similar polls taken five years ago.Skip to next paragraph
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Jorge Dominguez, professor of International Affairs at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., says the most troubling thing about Chávez is his "authoritarian disposition," his "hoarding power," and his "gradual but sure curtailing of political freedom and freedom of expression," referring to his packing of Venezuela's Supreme Court with loyalists and strict new media laws.
This, says Dominguez, combined with Chávez's support of anti-American leftist groups elsewhere on the continent, like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and possibly also revolutionaries in Bolivia and Nicaragua, is reason for alert. Chávez has repeatedly denied that he is funding these groups.
It is clear, though, that the Venezuelan leader, first elected in 1998 and winner of a referendum on his presidency last August, has a more receptive audience in the neighborhood. Since 2001, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, and Uruguay have joined Peru and Chile with left-of-center presidents. While most of them are still wary of Castro, Chávez is increasingly embraced. He has a "preferential treatment" agreement to subsidize oil to Central American and Caribbean countries and is launching a regional television network. And just last month a Washington-backed candidate was defeated in favor of a pro-Chávez one for head of the Organization of American States, largely seen as a rebuff of US influence in the region.
"The people of Latin America support him," Evo Morales, the Bolivian coca farmer who has been leading massive antigovernment protests in Bolivia this week, said at a rally. "That is the new reality."
Outside the clinic where medic Muñoz works, Maria Sanchez and Isabel Olivero are taking a calisthenics class with José, a heavyset Cuban gym coach who over the past six months seems to have put the entire neighborhood on an exercise regime. He will not give his last name, he explains, because the sports committee has not told him he could. The ladies put their hands in the air and wiggle their fingers, then squat down and walk around like ducks.
"Oh dear, so exhausting," gasps Sanchez, readjusting her hairs pins. "These Cubans are showing us how to live correctly - but it takes practice."
• Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.
• Born on July 28, 1954
• Graduated in 1975 from the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences with a master's in military sciences and engineering.
• Was a lieutenant-colonel in Venezuelan military.
• Led an unsuccessful coup on Feb. 4, 1992
• Elected president Dec. 6, 1998
• On April 12, 2002, was ousted in a coup but returned to power two days later.
• On August 15, 2004, survived a referendum on his rule, with nearly 60 percent of voters against a recall.
• Has four children and is currently separated from his second wife.