LONDON I m not a populist, I m a revolutionary, insisted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at a press conference (i.e. a four-hour monologue) in early November.
But he is in fact a populist, not a revolutionary a populist with a great deal of money to hand out, thanks to the record oil prices of the past two years, so a Chavez victory in the presidential election was never in doubt.
The real question is what he is really doing with all that money and power.
Mr. Chavez rejoices in annoying the U.S. government with revolutionary rhetoric, regularly denouncing President Bush as the Devil, and when Washington responds with bluster and veiled threats it just fortifies his popularity at home. But so far, after eight years in power, he has attempted nothing that could be called a revolutionary transformation of Venezuelan society. In fact, the rich are just as rich as they ever were.
The lives of many of the poor have certainly improved under Mr. Chavez much better medical care, free literacy classes, subsidized grocery shops selling basic foods at lower prices, cheap start-up loans for businesses but that is just oil income diverted straight into services for the poor. Even the 17,000 Cuban doctors provided by Fidel Castro to run the free clinics that have appeared all over the country fit that pattern, for Mr. Chavez pays for them with 90,000 barrels a day of free oil for Cuba.
There is nothing wrong with spending some of your oil income like this, especially if you think the oil price will stay high for a long time, but it is not revolutionary. It is exactly how many oil-rich kingdoms with deeply conservative rulers ensure decent lives for their poorer citizens and political stability for themselves.
In Venezuela, it is now the political norm: the main challenger in this election, Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales, tried to outbid Mr. Chavez by promising to issue special black debit cards ( Mi Negra ) with between $270 and $450 of credit on them to 2.5 million poor families. You can t get much more populist than that.
So what, other than calling the United States bad names, qualifies Mr. Chavez as a revolutionary ? He has gained power by perfectly legitimate democratic elections. He has taken almost nothing new into state ownership except for some but very few privately owned sugar plantations.
The country still has a free press (95 percent of which opposes Mr. Chavez), and the middle class is doing so well that new car sales have tripled in Venezuela since 2004.
On a recent visit to Belarus, the last Communist country in Europe, Mr. Chavez expressed his deep admiration for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, but one suspects that Lenin would not have reciprocated.
One even wonders what Mr. Chavez s great pal Fidel Castro privately thinks of him. (Actually, I think I know: A well-intentioned man, but an ideologically immature populist with a short attention span. )
Mr. Chavez, together with Evo Morales of Bolivia, is the only evidence for the wave of radical leftist regimes that are allegedly sweeping to power in Latin America, and he is not a very convincing piece of evidence.
Elsewhere, the alleged standard-bearers of leftist radicalism are mostly burnt-out cases like Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, once the leader of the Sandinistas but now a Catholic social conservative, or Alan Garcia, the once radical Peruvian politician who was recently re-elected to the presidency on a platform of fiscal responsibility.
The real promoters of change in Latin America are center-left politicians like Brazil s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Argentina s Nestor Kirchner, and Chile s President Michelle Bachelet, but they are social democrats in the classic Western European mold and they mostly avoid anti-American rhetoric. In the end, they will do far more to undermine Washington s stranglehold on Latin America than Chavez, Castro and Co., and far more good for their people, too.
Mr. Chavez, like Castro, is good at revolutionary theater, but he has little of Castro s underlying seriousness. Often he offers nothing but froth and bombast, as when he celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Venezuelan flag last March by introducing a new version in which the white horse, rather than going from left to right, goes from right to left. The white horse is now liberated, free, vigorous, trotting toward the left, representing the return of Bolivar and his dream! he told the crowd. Long live the Fatherland!
Mr. Chavez promises to get serious about the revolution after this election, starting with redistributing most of the land to the peasants (currently, 5 percent of land-owners hold 80 percent of the country s land), but there is no particular reason to think that he really means it this time. He is a narcissist and an accomplished populist, with oil money to burn.
He may even turn out to be Venezuela s Peron, hanging around to blight the country s politics for decades after his own time is up thanks to a dedicated following among the poor.
But he is not a revolutionary, and the proof lies in his own definition of the word:
It s like love. You have to make love every day in many ways. Sometimes carnally, sometimes with your eyes, sometimes with your voice. A revolution is love.
Right on, Hugo.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.