The best way to understand the spell the president of Venezuela casts over his fellow citizens is to do as they do every Sunday morning at eleven and settle down in front of the television in a favorite chair, with a good provision of drinks and sandwich ingredients, for a broadcast of Aló Presidente, Hugo Chávez's weekly televised communion with his country.
I watched Aló Presidente on the Sunday after the government took over a lush, well-managed cattle ranch in Chávez's home state of Barinas. Tongues wagged when it became known that in a long-ago interview Chávez had said that his grandfather had lived on this 20,000-acre ranch, La Marqueseña, and had tried for years to get the legal deed. But the Agriculture Ministryexplained that La Marqueseña was being taken over only because too much of its land lay idle, and because the owner, whose father had bought the property in 1949, could provide land titles from the colonial period but not for 1821—the year Simón Bolívar freed Venezuela from Spain.
As it happened, I'd visited La Marqueseña on the day of the government takeover. In the shade of samán and ceiba trees, workers who had been locked out since the day before put on a soup kettle and, eyeing the troops guarding the grounds, wondered if they would beallowed back in. They told me they considered the owner, Carlos Azpúrua, to be an excellent land manager. "It's false that we're exploited here," one of them said. "It's the only cattle concern around these parts where the owner lets you do your work without breathing down your neck all the time."