CARACAS, Venezuela – His portraits hang in homes across Venezuela. Loyal "Chavistas" cheer him on during folksy speeches that last up to seven hours and end up in print for sale on street corners. Admirers often say he embodies the spirit of Simon Bolivar, South America's 19th century independence hero.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has become so firmly enshrined in the national psyche, so adored by followers who see him as their savior, that his personality has become the predominant issue of his re-election campaign. Love him or hate him, Venezuelans agree that his crusading, magnetic persona is at the heart of what Chavez calls his socialist revolution.
"He gives the impression that he truly cares for the poor, that he would do anything to help us," says Anita Lopez, 32, a single mother who carries a photograph of "El Comandante" in her wallet.
Such loyalty among Venezuela's poor frustrates Chavez opponents, who have yet to come up with any force capable of countering him.
Chavez takes to the airwaves almost daily to address the nation, delivering rebellious tirades against the rich, the media, international capitalism and the U.S. government.
And masses of Venezuelans respond in Chavez fashion. Many turn out for rallies wearing red, the color that represents his movement.
His running skirmishes with the Bush White House have increased tension, with America alleging he is trying, Fidel Castro-style, to export his revolution to the rest of Latin America, and Chavez claiming Washington is out to overthrow him. His friendly ties to Saddam Hussein before the Iraq war, and his current honeymoon with Iran, further heighten Washington's disquiet.
The Chavez phenomenon illustrates a uniquely Latin American attraction to charismatic "caudillo" figures, says Bruce Bagley, a professor of international studies at the University of Miami. Whether on the right or the left, these are strong-armed leaders who appeal to a cultural hunger for a "powerful-but-kind patron" to solve the people's woes, Bagley says.
With deep pockets from high oil prices — last year alone, Venezuela made $48 billion from oil exports — Chavez has signed generous oil deals with a host of friendly governments and has become a leading benefactor for Latin America's increasingly popular left, and beyond. This winter he supplied millions of gallons of heating oil at a 40 percent discount to poor Americans in the Northeast. At home, he offers social programs from state-subsidized markets to free government-run universities.
While Chavez hates to be called "populist," his critics complain that he's a master of handout politics. Many Venezuelans go straight to Chavez seeking solutions for problems such as a failing school or crumbling shantytown.
Aides at the presidential palace shuffle through more than 10,000 letters and handwritten notes to Chavez every year, said Mildred Zambrano, who reviews the pleas of people seeking surgery or specialized health care.
The idolization of Chavez carries echoes of like-minded figures, from Cuba's Castro to Argentina's Juan Peron and his famous first lady, Eva. Just as "Peronistas" decades ago displayed framed portraits of "Evita" in their homes, today's Chavistas often put up posters of him on their walls.
This heartfelt glorification contrasts sharply with the fearful attention once commanded by right-wing dictators like Gen. Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic or Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile.
Chavez's government bears no resemblance to the right-wing dictatorships in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s, with their mass killings and disappearances of dissidents. Chavez is an elected leader whose opponents generally feel free to call him a menace to democracy who props up his government with heavy spending on propaganda.
Even the bags of sugar, pasta and beans sold at the discount government-run groceries he pioneered carry presidential slogans, and billboards bearing his image stare down at motorists on highways.
"The regime has developed a mythology and an exaggerated cult of personality through government publicity," complains opposition leader Cesar Perez.
The president's followers say they genuinely believe Chavez is finally using Venezuela's vast oil deposits — the largest proven reserves outside the Middle East — to help the poor, rather than just the elite few favored by past leaders. Chavez says he hopes to eventually help do away with poverty, and he cites government statistics showing poverty has decreased from 48 percent in 1997 to about 37 percent today. Opponents dispute those numbers, insisting poverty has not significantly declined.
"In the past, presidents came from the higher classes, the oligarchy, and didn't know anything about us, the poor. Chavez is different," Lopez said.
He has been in office seven years, and nine months before he runs for re-election, he has become a larger-than-life figure with no comparable challenger.
Chavez developed his popular touch while hawking tropical fruit and homemade candies as a child to help his family make ends meet in Sabaneta, a small town in the sunbaked plains of southwestern Venezuela.
He became an army paratrooper, and led a 1992 coup that failed to oust President Carlos Andres Perez, a populist-turned-fiscal conservative. More than 80 civilians and 17 soldiers were killed.
Released after two years in prison and discharged from the army, Chavez traveled the country promising to wipe out corruption and usher in prosperity. Many saw him as a fresh alternative to leaders from the two entrenched political parties that had shared power since the fall of Marcos Perez Jimenez, Venezuela's last dictator, in 1958. He won the 1998 election with 56 percent of the vote.
Briefly ousted in a coup in April 2002, he bounced back after just two days accusing the United States of engineering the plot. His opponents later mounted a recall campaign, forcing Chavez to put the matter to a referendum in 2004. He won it.
Chavez often warns of assassination plots. His bodyguards keep close watch while he greets supporters, planting kisses on women's cheeks and greeting "hermanos" with firm hugs and handshakes.
"I want to thank God for giving us a president as good as you," a crying woman told Chavez recently during his weekly TV program as she appeared on-camera to receive a government housing loan.
"Don't thank me," Chavez replied. "Thank God. He's the boss."