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The insider's guide to Hugo Chavez

By Simon Hooper for CNN
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(CNN) -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has unveiled a softer image in the run-up to his bid to win a third term of office on December 3. Here's all you need to know about the Latin American firebrand.

Hugo Chavez -- he's the Bush-baiter with the big mouth, right?

Chavez has made a name for himself internationally over the past few years thanks to his flamboyant taste in fiery anti-American rhetoric. Only last month at the U.N. General Assembly he described George W. Bush as "the devil" and said he could still smell "the sulfur" in the chamber after the U.S. President's speech. But Chavez is more of a renaissance man than most people realize: a president, soldier, philosopher, baseball player, crooner -- and a poet and a lover.

A poet and lover?

Behind the bluster beats a romantic heart, if a new newspaper advertisement promoting Chavez's bid for re-election in December is to be believed. In an ode to "the people of my Venezuela" Chavez writes, "Always, I did everything for love, For love towards the tree, the river... For the love of the people, I made myself president... I have governed for love."

I suppose the election has something to do with this?

A cynical assumption but one that is hard to deny. Chavez's new image is intended to seduce those Venezuelans yet to succumb to his Latin charms in the December 3 poll. With two election successes already behind him in 1999 and 2002, Chavez and Venezuela are hardly in the first flushes of romance so it is perhaps understandable, like a bank manager returning home with flowers, that he feels the need to inject some spark into the relationship. Perhaps he also feels guilty. While Chavez has been gallivanting around the globe as a traveling salesman for anti-American sentiment, flirting with the likes of Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and London mayor Ken Livingstone, he has faced accusations of neglecting domestic matters.

And who is the other man in this love tryst?

Manuel Rosales, currently governor of the province of Zulia, is the main opposition candidate seeking to woo Venezuelan voters -- though currently another 19 contenders are also vying for their attention. Opponents of Chavez accuse him of being undemocratic, of maintaining an iron-fisted grip on the levers of government and purging non-supporters from office, of giving away Venezuela's oil wealth and failing to address Venezuelans' personal security concerns.

Any truth in any of that?

Chavez is undoubtedly a "hands-on" president who has monopolized government by sheer force of personality in a way that alarms advocates of a strict separation of powers. On the other hand his democratic record has been impressive since a Damascene conversion to electoral politics after leading a failed coup in 1992. As well as securing clear majorities in 1999 and 2002, Chavez passed a new constitution by a handsome margin in 1999 and comfortably won an opposition-organized referendum on his leadership in 2004. Chavez also survived a coup attempt in 2002 when thousands of his supporters descended on Caracas after he had been briefly deposed by military leaders.

So is he going to win again?

At the moment he is a hot favorite, thanks to his huge powerbase and enduring popularity among Venezuela's poor. A poll conducted in August put support for Chavez at around 55 percent. Chavez has funneled oil revenues into health, education, housing and other social projects squarely targeted at the barrios -- the poverty-stricken shantytowns that dominate the hillsides surrounding Caracas. Those programs -- rather than his poetry -- are likely to be the determining factor when Venezuelans vote in early December.

Chavez: president, soldier and thinker.


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