Venezuela's Hugo Chavez: Despot, or Democrat?

A revolution challenging the underpinnings of American economic and political hegemony has emerged in Latin America. At its center sits the Bolivarian movement of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez. Photographer Andrew Cutraro and reporter Guy Taylor explore socio-political realities on the ground to assess the basis of Chavez's appeal and the challenges he is yet to face. Leading up to Venezuela's Dec. 3 presidential election, Taylor and Cutraro looked under the skin of a cult of personality surrounding Chavez and his government's aggressive relationship with mass media in Venezuela. Women faint when they meet Chavez. Men create stampedes to keep up with his caravans through impoverished cities. His fans are wowed by what they call a rare, God-given charisma and genuine commitment to channeling Venezuela's vast oil revenues toward the poor.

But his critics say he's a global-media-savvy psychological warrior and rising socialist dictator. Taylor and Cutraro also examined structural changes to government being pushed by Chavez, including the recent formation of thousands of community councils. His backers say they put power at the grass-roots level and represent the revolution's future. Critics say the councils are bent on replacing capitalism and the existing municipal government with a counterproductive, chaotic system of cooperatives.

Venezuela Volunteer Force Raises Concerns

A central feature of changes being brought about by President Hugo Chávez is the new, civilian branch of the Venezuelan military called the "territorial guard."

About 100,000 citizens, mainly from poor communities where support for Chávez burns hottest, have joined the guard during the past three years, according to members who participate in weekly training sessions at more than a dozen camps set up around the country.

Please Hold, the President Will Take Your Call

Critics say there's no better example of Hugo Chávez's suave egomania than his weekly television talk show, in which he takes calls from viewers across the country.

But they can't argue with the show's popularity.

"Alo Presidente" — "Hello President" — appears on state television every Sunday and typically runs for as long as six hours.

The show is taped from a different location each week, usually at the site of one of the government's social welfare programs, where Chávez appears with a telephone to take calls from viewers.

Venezuela: Social Programs

President Hugo Chavez is despised by many in his country for what they see as populist demagoguery and reckless policies, but that is not the case in the barrios and isolated rural hamlets of a country that remains extraordinarily poor despite its equally extraordinary wealth in oil. What poor and long marginalized Venezuelans see in Chavez are programs like free dental care, access to education and aid to the less advantaged in city and country alike.

Venezuela: The "Have Nots"

The skycrapers of Caracas bespeak a proudly confident country reaping the rewards of one of the world's great pools of oil. The shacks within sight of the sleek glass towers, the vast new urban slums and isolated villages untouched by modern conveniences all tell another story -- of the 50 percent of Venezuelans who live below the poverty line.