June 10, 2007
MANTECAL, Venezuela --
The Toyota 4Runner pulled to a stop on the country road and a tinted window rolled down. Passers-by gawked, then broke into a run, screaming "president!" when they realized Hugo Chavez was at the wheel. "I love you!" cried a middle-aged woman with tears in her eyes, thrusting a fistful of flowers into the car.
The president clasped hands and planted kisses on cheeks, heads and hands of the people who turned out in the pouring rain to see him - an emotional connection that he called the driving force behind the socialist revolution that has pitted him against Washington.
"What hurts me most is poverty, and that's what made me a rebel," Chavez said during six hours of conversations with The Associated Press on Saturday during a road trip across the southern plains, a helicopter flight and a visit to a cattle ranch.
Throughout the trip, as he sipped coffee and sang folk songs, he stopped to talk with poor men and women of all ages who crowded around his car. Many asked Chavez for help - to build a home, to arrange medical care - and Chavez barked out instructions to his aides, who jotted them down.
At one stop, a boy peered into the car and asked Chavez for money.
"It isn't good for you to be asking for money," the president replied. He then bought some tropical fruit called quenepa from another boy in the group, and asked about their homes and schools.
They live in shacks and have no school computers, so Chavez offered houses and technology - and more.
"Do you have water? Do you have books? ... That's the kind of help we can give you, the revolution gives to you. ... The day will come when kids don't have to sell quenepa fruit anymore."
Government statistics show poverty has declined during Chavez's eight years in office, and he rattled off lists of other improvements, from hospitals to new roads.
But his opponents charge he has accomplished little considering the billions of dollars in oil proceeds flowing into the country.
Although he is satisfied with his progress, Chavez said: "I'm not singing victory yet. It's a long road."
Chavez defended himself against opposition allegations that he is trying to be president-for-life, saying he will only stay on if re-elected. He has pledged constitutional reforms that if approved in a referendum would eliminate term limits, allowing him to run again in 2012.
U.S. officials have called Chavez a threat to democracy, while the Venezuelan leader often rails against American "imperialism."
Chavez said he hoped for better relations with the biggest importer of Venezuelan oil after President Bush leaves office.
"At least I would hope for a government with which it's possible to talk, a government with which differences can be discussed," he said.
The tour with Chavez offered an unusual glimpse into the life of a man who has transformed Venezuela and spread a socialist, anti-American message throughout the world.
He said he enjoys watching Clint Eastwood movies, and liked the film "Gladiator" so much he saw it three times. He sometimes plays late-night pickup baseball games with ministers and others, using a rubber ball. He relishes contact with the public, reads voraciously and makes hours-long speeches.
But overall he has few escapes from politics, a situation he blamed on conspiracies to kill him.
"I'm condemned to death, like Fidel (Castro) has been for a very long time, and as such forced to take security measures that are so extreme one ends up not having a personal life," Chavez said. "One ends up being a prisoner on a personal level."
One of Chavez's five children, 27-year-old Maria Gabriela, accompanied him on the trip and handed him cookies from the back seat. Though the twice-divorced 52-year-old former lieutenant colonel often speaks fondly of his children, Chavez said "there is no possibility" of marriage on the horizon.
"I don't have a life to share with someone," he said. "My life doesn't belong to me."
Even as Venezuela is transformed into a socialist state, Chavez promised private property will be respected.
"There will continue to be all the individual freedoms, collective freedoms, fundamental rights," he said. "We accept private education. We accept private health care, as long as it's regulated and in keeping with national policy. ... The same goes for banks."
Chavez defended his decision not to renew the broadcast license of opposition-allied TV station Radio Caracas Television, which set off two weeks of protests by university students who called it a move against free speech.
He said the move was long overdue, saying the station backed a 2002 coup against him and consistently broke the law. The channel has sought to challenge the decision in the Supreme Court.
"We want there to be critical media," Chavez said. He warned, however, that if other private broadcasters "call for a coup d'etat, call for assassination ... their concession has to be revoked."
Chavez said there were no plans to nationalize more businesses - for now - after a series of state takeovers in the oil, telecommunications and electricity industries. But he would not rule out more expropriations in the future.
His government has also taken over what it considers underused agricultural lands, including the cattle ranch he visited Saturday. He described plans for housing, more cattle and cooperative farms on the giant plot as he circled overhead in a helicopter.
"The agrarian revolution has arrived," he said.