When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez assembled his ministers before a national television audience to give his version of the capture of Peruvian fugitive Vladimiro Montesinos, it was vintage Chavez.
For months, he had denied that South America's most-wanted thug - suspected of drugs and arms trafficking to directing death squads - had found refuge in Venezuela. Now Mr. Chavez was under pressure to explain how Mr. Montesinos, former spy chief and top aide to disgraced Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, had been able to hide out in Caracas. (The Financial Times reported last week that government officials here now admit Montesinos was protected by high-ranking officials of the Venezuelan political police.)
But there was no sign of contrition.
Instead, he accused Peru's officials of violating Venezuelan sovereignty with an undercover police investigation, while participating in an international conspiracy to tarnish Venezuela.
In his public-relations march, Chavez showed once again the brashness that propelled him from a youth of poverty to national leadership.
Chavez, whose childhood hero was 19th-century South American liberator Simon Bolivar, rose through the Army and led a failed 1992 coup attempt before being elected president in 1998. But some now wonder if the man in the red beret is fit for running the country.
Peruvian Foreign Minister Javier Perez de Cuellar termed Chavez's recently televised discourse "verbal aggression" and called home the Peruvian ambassador.
Increasingly, Venezuelans in traditional power circles of business, the media, or internationally connected civil activism find Chavez's brand of leadership at least embarrassing, and, at times, threatening.
It's a style Sergio Dahbar, editor of the Caracas daily El Nacional, calls "el guapo del barrio" - a term that might be translated as "ghetto prince."
"He's charismatic, but the approach to people who don't fall under his charm is confrontational," says Mr. Dahbar. "So far, there's been no censorship, we're not in a dictatorship in that sense. But he is very intimidating; it's governance through intimidation."
Part tough guy, part charmer, part feudal lord, Chavez has a big vision for his nation. He envisions a role as a countervailing wind, buffeting (if not halting) the steamship of globalization and American global hegemony, and offering an alternative to the roughly decade-old free-market economic model that has often only deepened Latin America's poverty.
But Chavez is finding his vision hitting a wall. His accomplishments to date have been political: a new "Bolivarian" Constitution - which offers him a chance to win a second term that would stretch until 2013 - and a sympathetic Congress elected largely on his coattails. Congress, in turn, has appointed a supportive supreme court.
But few inroads have been made into a stagnated economy - suggesting to critics that he doesn't know what to do.
That judgment fails, however, to give Chavez credit for the key international role his government has played in giving OPEC new life and keeping profits high for oil-producing countries.
Still, since Chavez won the presidency with 56 percent of the vote in December 1998, the Venezuelan economy has shrunk further. The 80 percent of the population that either is poor or has felt its living standard retreat over the past decade is no better off.
High oil prices have given Venezuela, the largest oil producer outside the Arab countries, a safety net. But Chavez's discourse against the monied class has frightened domestic and international investors alike.
The result is not a collapse of Chavez's support, as some detractors once predicted, but the charmer is beginning to lose some of his charm.
"Support for Chavez still falls somewhere between 50 and 60 percent, but what you don't see any more are people taking to the streets for him," says Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Datanalisis public opinion firm in Caracas. "People feel less connected to him," he adds, "and that means less intense support."
Street vendors no longer sell Chavez's trademark red berets or posters of Chavez as Rambo. The stalls that once offered small books on Chavez's thinking or membership in his party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), are gone.
Still, Chavez faces no opponent likely to wrest away major support any time soon. In part, this is because the traditional major political parties, discredited after decades of special-interest politics and held responsible for Venezuela's squandering of its petroleum wealth, aren't offering fresh leadership. But it's also because the mass of voters who hold the key to Venezuela's future still find hope in the Chavez discourse.
"The poor still hold on to this idea Chavez chants to them that he will topple the rich and raise up the poor, that he is their redeemer," says Elias Pino Iturrieta, director of history at the Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.
In an effort to keep the fires of popularity burning, Chavez has taken recent controversial steps that have kindled fears of a return to dictatorship in Venezuela.
Last month, for example, Chavez announced a plan to form "Bolivarian circles," neighborhood clubs that would instill the principles of the 19th-century hero such as moral character, love of country, and solidarity. That plan immediately stoked fears that Chavez, feeling besieged, really wants a network similar to Cuba's Revolutionary Defense Committees.
Chavez's political movement, the MVR, was supposed to be his engine of popularity; it has instead turned into a liability as cases of corruption involving MVR elected officials have splashed into the news.
In a country where a majority considers corruption among the wealthy the key reason for their poverty, Chavez's attraction ever since his attempted coup against a corrupt regime has been his image as a "clean" military man. "Chavez knows the closer the taint of corruption gets to him, the weaker will be his support," says Moncada.
Meanwhile, Venezuelans look at Chavez and see conflicting signals. He is a professed admirer of Fidel Castro and communist Cuba, yet he acts strictly as a capitalist at home. He has visited Iraq and Libya, but at the same time has assured President Bush that he can count on Venezuela as a "friend" and a steady source of oil.
He is a soldier at heart, having put more military officials in government posts than at any time since the last military regime in the late 1950s. But his policies have alienated part of the military high command, one of whom criticized him for what he called a "drift from democracy."
Chavez's recent dust-up with Peru, Mr. Pino says, is "one more contradiction in the thinking of a man who claims to be nationalist without sorting out how that conflicts with his support for regional integration."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor