CARACAS, Venezuela -- It was a Thursday night on a packed downtown subway a few weeks ago, and a middle-age man broke into a painful groan, as if an anvil had been dropped on his big toe. He was short and stocky, dressed in a gray T-shirt and blue jeans. And he was angry. Real angry.
The man sitting across from him, who looked a tad younger and was wearing a work uniform, had just made a case against voting for Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president in the midst of a re-election campaign.
So the older man yelled back, raising his fists in the air to make his points. Soon enough, just about everyone within earshot has turned with smiles on their faces to listen to the argument. The younger man says the older guy isn't making sense. "That's because you're a fool," the older man shot back, and the crowd burst into laughter.
Their debate ended when the younger man had to exit the train. Before walking out the door, he looked his opponent in the eye and said with disdain, "Hasta la vista, baby."
"You have to respect the president," the older man said after the other guy left, again pumping his fists.
The late-night subway debate was a sample of how Hugo Chavez, who won his re-election bid with 59 percent of the vote on July 30, has stirred emotions among the working class in this oil-producing nation.
A former army lieutenant colonel who staged an unsuccessful government coup in 1992, Mr. Chavez convinced many of the poor, who are about 80 percent of the population, that he has the guts and the brains to pull Venezuela out of the deep recession it is enduring.
But there's reason to worry. Mr. Chavez has flashed signals that he will become Latin America's newest dictator. And many Venezuelans are so tired of high crime and poverty that they seem to be greeting Mr. Chavez's authoritarian tendencies as a welcome change.
Since first taking office, in 1999, Mr. Chavez, a left-leaning leader who is chummy with Fidel Castro, has extended the power of his office, pushed through a new constitution and given the military a significant presence in government. He has frequently enticed voters with political rhetoric that approaches flat-out demagoguery, sometimes portraying himself as Venezuela's great savior.
While the poor have embraced his message, the well-to-do in the country, as well as some in the international community, are leery about what Mr. Chavez's next moves will be. An oppressive government in Venezuela could be especially problematic for the United States, since Venezuela has been our largest supplier of oil recently, according to the New York Times.
Heinz R. Sonntag, a sociology professor at the Central University of Venezuela who is visiting Brown University on a Guggenheim Fellowship, doesn't pause when asked if Mr. Chavez is laying the groundwork for a dictatorship. He says he "has no doubt" that the president will become more authoritarian.
"You have to consider this dangerous mixture of a messianic image of himself and the ideological stew in his head," said Mr. Sonntag, who has been a frequent critic of Mr. Chavez.
One of the most telling aspects of Mr. Chavez's rule so far is his emphasis on the military, Mr. Sonntag said. It appears that Mr. Chavez wants to restructure society in some kind of vertical manner, to resemble the military.
Anthony Pereira, a political-science professor at Tulane University's Latin American studies program, is less sure about Mr. Chavez's intentions. But the stepped-up military presence is unsettling, he said. "The military is an hierarchical institution," said Mr. Pereira. "It heeds the president."
Even though Venezuela boasts vast oil reserves, the wealth hasn't trickled down. Mr. Chavez, who at 46 is part of a generation that grew up witnessing widespread political corruption, has played upon the public's anger with how the wealth is distributed. He talks often about toppling the country's "oligarchs," though it is unclear what that means. The word "oligarchs" has come to stand for anyone who has money.
Mr. Chavez also pledges to guarantee social safety nets so no one gets left behind. This has especially appealed to voters, and could be a positive development if done properly. But so far, Mr. Chavez hasn't delivered.
Michael Smith is a Providence Journal staff writer. A longer version of this article was distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.