The president of Venezuela was addressing an International Women's Day gathering in Caracas last week, when he broke into song. The overflow crowd, familiar with their exuberant president's penchant for singing popular songs when the spirit moves him, went wild, chanting for more. He obliged.
Sitting in the audience, I was struck by the emotional connection between the crowd and Hugo Chavez democratically elected president, revolutionary style leader, champion of Venezuela's poor, scourge of Venezuela's rich, and, some say, next on Washington's hit list.
Last month, Haiti's democratically elected government was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by Haiti's wealthy elite, with apparent support from Washington. That has fueled speculation Washington will encourage a similar coup in Venezuela, where the well-to-do are itching for an opportunity to overthrow Chavez.
In fact, they've already overthrown him once. In April, 2002, an armed faction led by the head of the local chamber of commerce stormed the presidential palace and took Chavez prisoner.
"Washington applauded," Chavez recalled during an interview at the presidential palace last week. "The American ambassador came here and supported the coup."
But Chavez regained power in 48 hours, after hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets demanding his return.
This country of 23 million remains fiercely divided, mostly along class lines. The opposition, led by the wealthy elite, has 3.4 million signatures on a petition to recall Chavez, but a court-appointed commission has questioned 1.5 million of those signatures. The matter is under review, with the support of international agencies.
It's not surprising the well-to-do hate Chavez who, in the past five years, has made an aggressive assault against their long-entrenched privileges. For decades, they effectively ruled Venezuela, maintaining close ties with U.S. corporate interests and siphoning off billions of dollars in revenues from the state-owned oil company to support their lavish lifestyles.
In an upscale pastry shop, a fashionably dressed young man, seeing that I'm a foreigner, volunteers how Chavez has destroyed Venezuela. Meanwhile, a bellhop at the hotel beams when the president's name is mentioned: "Ese es el hombre!" (He's the man!).
Chavez, who comes from humble roots as the child of black and Indian parents, has made himself wildly popular among the poor more than 60 per cent of the population by redirecting the country's oil revenues to public health care and education.
A huge building that served as headquarters for corrupt oil officials has been turned into a free university for the poor, with students brought in by bus from their barrios.
The elite owns all the private TV stations, which seem to run nothing but reports on Hollywood celebrities and the tyranny of Chavez. CNN picks up its Venezuelan footage from these stations, which explains why almost everything North Americans learn about Venezuela is negative. (A recent Globe and Mail editorial, titled "The obstinate Chavez," suggested he should learn a lesson from the coup in Haiti, and posed the question: "Doesn't Hugo Chavez watch CNN?" presumably the Globe's main information source).
There's no question that what's going on in Venezuela is a radical experiment in popular democracy.
After his election in 1998, Chavez won overwhelming support in a referendum on his proposal to write a new constitution.
An assembly was elected to draft the new constitution, which includes strong protections for women's rights and a ban on privatizing the nation's oil. Copies of the easy-to-read constitution are sold on street corners.
But the ban on oil privatization has infuriated Washington as has Chavez's strong critique of America's trade and development policies.
Chavez has been a leading force among a growing group of developing countries that rejects the "Washington consensus" for concentrating too much power in corporations and eroding the sovereignty of nations.
"We are creating an alternative model to globalization," he says, noting that the developing world's struggle began with revolutionary leaders particularly his hero, Simon Bolivar 200 years ago.
Chavez knows Washington is hostile, but is hoping for Canadian support: "Canada can play a very important role in Latin America."
He had a good rapport with former prime minister Jean Chrétien, with whom he recalls throwing snowballs.
He crossed paths but no more with Paul Martin in January at the summit in Monterrey, Mexico.
Venezuela could well become another litmus test for Martin: Will he stand up for democratically elected governments, even ones in Washington's bad books?
In the case of Haiti, Martin went along with Washington, accepting the line that Haiti's democracy was a failed regime not worth defending.
Venezuela will be a tougher test, with much higher stakes. It's a vibrant democracy but it's sitting on a tonne of oil.
Linda McQuaig is a Toronto-based author and political commentator. [email protected].