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Seven years later, Chávez, 51, is more in control than ever—and Ramírez was experiencing moral conflict. She had been brought up in the fold of a progressive Catholic church, which has had an ongoing, and effective, educational mission in La Vega for many years, and she has been involved in community work since adolescence, tutoring children from the poorest homes in the barrio who have such trouble behaving that they cannot stay in school. The words "community" and "solidarity" have been deeply meaningful to her since long before Chávez came on the scene, but now, she said, here was Chávez, making his enormous presence felt in La Vega with his Bolivarian Revolution and his own solidarity programs and his big budgets and his community projects (known also as misiónes), seemingly for every need: medical misiónes staffed round the clock with Cuban doctors, sports misiónes for the kids, supermarket misiónes for all the poor, where they can buy food at cost.

As if she were still struggling with the issue, she said that she could not approve of the Cha-vistas' radicalized view of society, in which the rich are evil, the poor are sainted, and those who disagree with the president are enemies. Nor was she sure that Hugo Chávez could be called a democrat. For these reasons, many of her friends in La Vega were less than wild about him. "But I'm a Chavista," she said at last, and it was easy to see why. She had so many more opportunities now. All her life she had practiced folkloric dance and had longed for a formal education, and now here she was coordinating a misión cultura, which encouraged young people in La Vega to form community folk dance and music groups. Thanks to another misión, she was working toward a college equivalency degree and receiving a monthly stipend in addition to the training. More important than that—much more important—she said, "Con Chávez tengo mi lugar—With Chávez I have a place where I belong. Before, we, the poor, were nothing. Now we are recognized." How could she deny the excitement and loyalty that made her feel?

So the conquest of the poor by Hugo Chávez has progressed year after year, although his opposition at home and abroad would no doubt like to tell Ramírez that the changes in her own life are the result of profligate squandering of oil money on short-term fixes for deep-rooted problems, that the president will be respectful and considerate of her needs and opinions only as long as those opinions favor him, and that Venezuela's leader is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with the world at large. These are only dire predictions for a distant future, whereas Chávez's offer of help for people in urgent need is for right now.

With the support of millions of Venezuelans like Trinidad Ramírez, Chávez, the hallucinatory speaker, has gone from freak to phenomenon—an overwhelming figure who will cast a long shadow over Latin American politics for many years to come. How did that happen?

Certainly, the skinny backwoods kid who joined the military, he has often said, as a way to get to Caracas to play baseball in the big leagues did not look promising when he first took a handful of confused leftish political notions and knotted them into a plot to stage a coup, but he was helped immensely by his country's history. Following a long series of military dictatorships that had poisoned its political life since declaring independence from the Spanish crown in 1811, Venezuela had evolved into Latin America's most stable democracy, as it liked to boast to the world. (Although some might have pointed out that Costa Rica, say, had gone considerably farther along that road, and without the benefit of the oil gusher that fueled Venezuela's roaring economy.)

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