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Why Chavez is wooing autocrats abroad

Less popular among Latin leaders, the Venezuelan president is on an 11-day trip to visit allies including Libya's Qaddafi and Iran's Ahmadinejad.

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The summit's final declaration didn't condemn the US-Colombian deal, as Chavez sought. Instead, it called for strengthening the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking — Uribe's main goals — while saying that foreign powers couldn't threaten other nations.

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"Bariloche was a defeat for Chavez," says Maria Teresa Romero, a foreign policy specialist at Venezuela's Central University in Caracas. "Uribe emerged in a more advantageous position."

Rafael Nieto, a political columnist for Colombia's main newspaper, El Tiempo, says Chavez had already lost ground in Latin America when Honduras' military forced Zelaya into exile at gunpoint on June 28, the same day that Argentine voters handed a stinging election defeat to Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, another of his allies.

On top of that, Nieto added, Paraguay's Senate recently blocked Chavez's move to join the Mercosur trade bloc. And El Salvador's new leftist president, Mauricio Funes, declared Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to be his model – not Chavez.

"Chavez's authoritarian measures in Venezuela scare people in other countries," Nieto said.

Better reception on trip abroad

That doesn't seem to be the case in the countries he's visiting during his 11-day trip. Libyan President Moammar Qaddafi awarded him a medal, and Algeria's president discussed strengthening oil ties.

Still to come: Syria, Iran, Belarus, and Russia.

Back home, Chavez remains a formidable figure. He continually outwits the opposition.

His unmatched political charisma and continued ability to hand out money generated by oil profits have kept him popular among slightly more than half of all Venezuelans, pollster Luis Vicente Leon says.

Chavez needs to remain popular to deepen his so-called "revolution," which amounts to a government takeover of more of the economy, Leon says.

To that end, Leon says, Chavez has had the government take over private radio stations and has threatened to close Globovision, the lone remaining TV station that regularly airs critical coverage of him.

"He wants to control the message," Leon says. "If you ask people if they are in favor of the government taking over private companies, they overwhelmingly say no. If you ask them instead if they want to make sure that companies fairly distribute goods and services to prevent shortages, they favor that."

Middle-class opponents of Chavez have heightened their resistance since a compliant Congress approved a Chavez measure three weeks ago that opponents say would force teachers to indoctrinate students with communist ideas.

Two recent marches that led to street clashes have resulted in the arrest of over 40 people, including the deputy mayor of Caracas, and the police are seeking one march organizer, who's in hiding.

Chavez has denied that his jails are holding "political prisoners," as opponents claim.

"What the government wants is for us to surrender, Antonio Ledezma, Caracas' mayor, told supporters Wednesday. "We will continue to fight."