CARACAS, Venezuela — He shed his colonel's uniform a dozen years ago, but Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has waged his latest campaign to stay in power with the determination and strategic plotting of a battle-hardened field marshal.
He has hurled legal and electoral salvos at the enemy -- opponents seeking to recall him in a nationwide referendum today. He has roused his forces -- the army of poor that conscripts 70% of Venezuelans. A man who led one unsuccessful coup and survived another, Chavez remains first and foremost a man ready to fight.
On the eve of the vote that will either validate his troubled presidency or remove him from power, and could ignite violence in this deeply divided country, the 50-year-old former paratrooper laid out his nearly six-year legacy in an exclusive interview with The Times as if briefing his troops for battle.
Even in the event of his ouster, Chavez said, he was prepared to wage another campaign for the presidency. Under the constitution, a new election would be held within 30 days.
"It's very unlikely [that I will lose], but in that case, I will turn over the presidential sash, rest for three days and return as a candidate," he said at the Miraflores presidential palace, eschewing the paratrooper beret he is still fond of and wearing a tailored blue suit and lizard-skin loafers.
Blunt, self-assured and eager to be engaging, the man known among his people as El Comandante Chavez has cast himself as the only leader since liberator Simon Bolivar to struggle for a Venezuela that unites rich and poor, black and white, capitalists and communists, Christians and nonbelievers.
Addressing opponents' fears that he plans to emulate his friend Fidel Castro and impose Cuban-style communism in this country that supplies about one-eighth of U.S. petroleum needs, Chavez said he was seeking only a "flexible" democratic model.
The media remain free here, and his opponents are unhindered in their noisy and frequent protests.
Chavez said of the recall proponents' accusations: "There is no dictatorship here. I am not a dictator, and there are no plans for a dictatorship." Brandishing a tiny, blue-bound volume of the constitution he helped draft in 1999, Chavez noted that it provided the right of the citizenry to stage the recall that could remove him from office.
Chavez's government initially opposed the referendum. Courts packed with the president's supporters ruled on the effort's various stages -- often in his favor.
When Chavez was elected as a populist in 1998, he set out to remake Venezuela. He oversaw the drafting of the constitution, according rights to the impoverished minority long ignored in this oil-rich nation.
In a controversial drive to put his mark on a new social policy dubbed chavismo, he has launched campaigns against illiteracy and illness with the help of 12,000 Cuban volunteers dispatched by Castro in exchange for discounted oil.
But over time, populism has turned to authoritarianism, opponents charge, as Chavez put soldiers and police into key industrial and civil service posts. The economy is in the doldrums. The country has an unemployment rate of 15%, the worst inflation in Latin America at 25% and sliding per capita income.
Although opponents blame him for strained ties with the U.S., which is Venezuela's biggest oil customer, Chavez pointed out that the Bush administration has difficulties with a number of nations. He also noted that Wall Street brokers cast his continued stay in office as the most stability-ensuring outcome -- probably because oil industry executives have warned that a Chavez defeat could disrupt the state oil enterprise.
"With Clinton, we had a relationship of discussion. We could sit at the table and negotiate, make proposals and counterproposals," Chavez said of his first years in office. "It was a relationship that respected differences."
When President Bush took office, he said, "that ended. He ended mutual respect, not just with Venezuela but with the whole world. In Iraq, they created a terrible lie to justify war."
The Bush administration's swift recognition of coup plotters who briefly ousted Chavez in April 2002 finished off any hope of mending fences.
"It's impossible to have a relationship with the Bush government," said Chavez, clearly still angry about U.S. support for his ouster, which was overturned when his supporters took to the streets. "He supported the fascist coup against us, and now he is supporting the opposition in the referendum."
Predicting, as he did repeatedly, that he would defeat the recall and carry on with his revolution for the poor, Chavez said he hoped such a victory would show Bush "the need for rectification."
"We hope the relationship will be positive. We should put our differences on the table and agree to respect our differences," said Chavez, who insisted that he harbored no anti-American sentiment and referred repeatedly to friends and even a nephew living in the United States.