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There was more talk about Bolívar and about Chávez's beloved grandmother Rosa Inés and the stories she had told him of his grandfather at La Marqueseña, and his own memories of the ranch when he was a young army officer stationed nearby. Chávez made a friendly appeal to its owner, Azpúrua ("a decent man"), to stay calm. There were any number of plans and programs announced for the ranch and other ranches to be confiscated soon: a training center for cattle breeding, agribusiness and model villages for the campesinos, coffee and cacao plantations in a forest on the premises (part of the ranch is a government wildlife preserve). There was even an acknowledgment that, given the turmoil of the wars of independence and the internecine civil wars of the 19th century, few people in the countryside were actually in possession of proper title to their land.

Then there was a definitive, explicit statement: "If someone doesn't want [to reach an agreement with us], he can go to the courts, but we're going to ask you for all the [documents] from 1821, and if [the property] wasn't registered in 1821. . . ." Here Chávez made the sound of a piece of paper being torn in half. But what Chávez demands doesn't exist: The fledgling government didn't get around to issuing titles until decades later.

Six hours after he joyfully greeted the Venezuelan people, an obviously happy Chávez called Aló Presidente a wrap. As the cameras pulled away to show the fertile grasslands of La Marqueseña, he strolled over to where a quartet of local musicians was waiting to perform the lyrical, lilting music of the Venezuelan savanna and joined them in song.

Last September I spent a day in the com-pany of a young woman, Trinidad Ramírez, from a poor barrio in Caracas, talking about her neighborhood, her life, and the president of her nation. Her barrio, La Vega, is one of the hundreds of poor areas that occupy the steep hillsides ringing the Caracas valley. Across it, the prominence of Monte Ávila can be seen from some angles, and, in its shade, some of the pricier real estate in the prosperous capital of Venezuela. Due north, hidden from view by the Ávila, lie the clear waters of the Caribbean. Below are the shimmering office buildings of the business district. Once, these hillsides were lush, but that was decades before millions of dirt-poor campesinos from inland areas began their long migration to the capital, looking for modernity and the prosperous life. The greater part of Caracas's estimated 3.2 million people live on these now stripped inclines, and only a few twisting, potholed roads, linked to an intricate web of steep footpaths, connect the precipitous alleyways where bare-brick older dwellings and newer cardboard and tin shacks are pitched against each other at an impossible angle to the hills.

Instead of public transportation in the upper reaches of Caracas there are quite a number of privately owned rattletrap buses, and many more astoundingly decrepit jeeps, which for a few pennies will allow a dozen unfortunate passengers to wedge themselves onto low wooden benches nailed to the floor behind the driver's seat and hold on for dear life. I sat in one of these vehicles with Ramírez, hitting my head against the roof at every bounce, and tried to concentrate on what she was saying about Hugo Chávez, the army man who in 1992 attempted to stage a coup against the elected president of his country, and then went on to win the presidency himself, by a landslide, in 1998.

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