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Bolivar and caviar

The leftward shift sweeping Latin America represents the most significant economic and social development in the region since a wave of leftist and populist governments were overthrown in the 1970s. Since 1998, eight states have elected leftist leaders who openly question Washington's development consensus: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela.

At the centre of this broad move to the left is Hugo Chavez, the polarising leader of Venezuela who has assumed the mantle of Simon Bolivar and Fidel Castro - but this time with swollen oil fields to add to his bite. Despite massive protests early in his presidency, and a 2002 coup attempt favoured by the Bush administration, Chavez remains the central protagonist in a continent-wide move toward stronger labour rights, indigenous rights, robust national industry and a reduced role for foreign multinational corporations.

Chavez, whose success in recent years has been founded on high energy prices, has caricatured oil executives as living in 'luxury chalets where they perform orgies, drinking whisky.' But while his social programmes have redistributed money to the poor, there is also a growing class of so-called 'boli-burguesia' - the Bolivarian bourgeoisie - who have made their fortune during Chavez's revolution. While the shanty towns on hillside barrios continue to expand, luxury homes and apartment blocks are shooting up in wealthier neighbourhoods of Caracas, illustrating the stark divide between Venezuela's haves and have-nots.

On December 3rd, Chavez was reelected president, winning a third term in office. His party also controls the National Assembly, the judiciary and most state governorships. His campaign slogan? 'Vote for Chavez. Vote against the devil. Vote against Empire.'

* Jacob Silberberg completed this story as a fellow of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.
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