Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, is a genial fellow with a good sense of humour and a steely political purpose. As a former military officer, he is accustomed to the language of battle and he thrives under attack. He will laugh off this week's suggestion by Pat Robertson, the US televangelist, that he should be assassinated, but he will also seize on it to ratchet up the verbal conflict with the United States that has lasted throughout his presidency.
Chávez, now 51, is the same age as Tony Blair, and after nearly seven years as president he has been in power for almost as long. But there the similarities end. Chávez is a man of the left and, like most Latin Americans with a sense of history, he is distrustful of the United States. Free elections in Latin America have often thrown up radical governments that Washington would like to see overthrown, and the Chávez government is no exception to this rule.
Chávez is a genuinely revolutionary figure, one of those larger-than-life characters who surface regularly in the history of Latin America - and achieve power perhaps twice in a hundred years. He wants to change the history of the continent. His close friend and role model is Fidel Castro, Cuba's long-serving leader. The two men meet regularly, talk constantly on the telephone, and have formed a close political and military alliance. Venezuela has deployed more than 20,000 Cuban doctors in its shanty-towns, and Cuba is the grateful recipient of cheap Venezuelan oil, replacing the subsidised oil it once used to receive from the Soviet Union. This, in the eyes of the US government, would itself be a heinous crime that would put Chávez at the top of its list for removal. The US has been at war with Cuba for nearly half a century, mostly conducted by economic means, and it only abandoned plans for Castro's direct overthrow after subscribing to a tacit agreement not to do so with the Soviet Union after the missile crisis of 1962.
The Americans would have dealt with Chávez long ago had they not been faced by two crucial obstacles. First, they have been notably preoccupied in recent years in other parts of the world, and have hardly had the time, the personnel, or the attention span to deal with the charismatic colonel. Second, Venezuela is one of the principal suppliers of oil to the US market (literally so in that 13,000 US petrol stations are owned by Citgo, an extension of Venezuela's state oil company). Any hasty attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan government would undoubtedly threaten this oil lifeline, and Chávez himself has long warned that his assassination would close down the pumps. With his popularity topping 70% in the polls, he would be a difficult figure to dislodge.
Chávez comes from the provinces of Venezuela, from the vast southern cattle lands of the Llanos that stretch down to the Apure and Orinoco river system. Of black and Indian ancestry, his parents were local schoolteachers, and he has inherited their didactic skills. His talents first came to the fore when he joined the army and became a popular lecturer at the war college in Caracas. He is a brilliant communicator, speaking for hours on television in a folksy manner that captivates his admirers and irritates his opponents.
He never stops talking and he never stops working. He has time for everyone and never forgets a face. For several years he travelled incessantly around the country, to keep an eye on what was going on. This was not mere electioneering, for he would talk for hours to those who had hardly a vote among them. He exhausts his cadres, his secretaries and his ministers. I have travelled with him and them into the deepest corners of the country, and then, after a 16-hour day, he would call the grey-faced cabinet together for an impromptu meeting to analyse what they had discovered and what measures they should take.
There was always a touch of the 19th century about this frenetic activity, as though the president were still on horseback, and Castro is known to have warned Chávez not to absorb himself unduly in the minutiae of administration. "You are the president of Venezuela," he is reported to have said, "not the mayor of Caracas." Chávez has taken the advice to heart, and has become less the populist folk hero and more the impressive statesman. Concern about possible assassination has long predated Robertson's outburst, and for the past two years Chávez has cut down his travels inside the country and been accompanied everywhere by fearsome-looking guards.
Abroad, however, he is a frequent visitor to the capitals of Latin America, and he is widely perceived as the leader of the group of left-leaning presidents recently elected in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, as well as the inspiration of the radicalised indigenous movements now clamouring at the gates of power in Bolivia and Ecuador. There is another touch of the 19th century here, for Chávez is a follower and promoter of the ideas and career of Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan leader who brought the philosophy of the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution to Latin America, and liberated much of the continent from Spanish rule. Chávez has labelled his movement the "Bolivarian Revolution", and he hopes that his political ideas will spread throughout the continent.
This in itself would be alarming enough to the United States, had it the time to pay proper attention. Equally worrying for the Americans is the time Chávez has devoted to the Middle East, successfully courting the governments that belong to Opec, the oil producers' organisation, some of whom have been labelled by the Americans as "the axis of evil". Today's high oil price has much to do with increased demand from China and India, and from the Iraq war, but the spadework that has given Opec fresh credibility was put in by Chávez. Soon he will be helping to show the new Iranian president, using the Venezuelan example, how to increase the revenues of a state-owned oil company and channel them into programmes to help the poor.
Chávez is widely popular today, but for much of his presidency he has been a contested, even a hated figure, arousing widespread discontent within Venezuela's traditional white elite. Yet although his rhetoric is revolutionary, his reforms have been moderate and social democratic. He criticises the policies of "savage neo-liberalism" that have done so much harm to the poorer peoples of Venezuela and Latin America in the past 20 years, yet the private sector is still alive and well. His land reform is aimed chiefly at unproductive land and provides for compensation. His most obvious achievement, which should not have been controversial, has been to channel increased oil revenues into a fresh range of social projects that bring health and education into neglected shanty-towns.
The hatred that he arouses in the old opposition parties, which have seen their membership and influence dwindle, lies more in ideology and racial antipathy than in material loss. Some opponents dislike his friendship with Castro, his verbal hostility to the United States, and his criticisms of the Catholic church, and some people still have a residual hostility to the fact that he staged an unsuccessful military coup in 1992 when a young colonel in the parachute regiment. Many Latin Americans still find it difficult to come to terms with the idea of a progressive military man. But mostly they are alarmed by the way in which he has enfranchised the country's vast underclass, interrupting the cosy, US-influenced lifestyle of the white middle class with visions of a frightening world that lives beyond their apartheid-gated communities.
Over the past few years this anxious opposition has made several attempts to get rid of Chávez, with the tacit encouragement of Washington. They organised a coup in April 2002 that rebounded against them two days later when the kidnapped Chávez was returned to power by an alliance of the army and the people. They tried an economic coup by closing down the oil refineries, and this too was a failure. Last year's recall-referendum, designed to lead to a defeat for Chávez, was an overwhelming victory for him. The local opposition, and by extension the United States, have shot their final bolt. There is nothing left in the locker, except of course assassination.
The fingers of mad preachers are usually far from the button, but the untimely words of Pat Robertson, easily discounted in Washington and airily dismissed by the state department as "inappropriate", might yet wake an echo among zealots in Venezuela. A similar call was made last year by a former Venezuelan president. Assassinations may be easy to plan, and not difficult to accomplish. But their legacy is incalculable. The radical leader of neighbouring Colombia, Jorge Gaitán, was assassinated more than 50 years ago, in 1948. In terms of civil war and violence, the Colombians have been paying the price ever since. No one would wish that fate on Venezuela.
· Richard Gott is the author of Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, published this month by Verso, price £9.99.