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Allies to lose socialist patron if Venezuela's Chavez goes

CARACAS -- Murals adorning a Caracas slum that has given militant backing to President Hugo Chavez over the years are a virtual pantheon of international radicals.

From Colombia's FARC guerrillas to the Palestine Liberation Organization and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the images and slogans on teeming slopes above Chavez's presidential palace hail socialist revolutionaries the world over.

Beside them are tributes to Chavez himself — testimony to the Venezuelan leader's bid to place himself at the front of global “anti-imperialism” in his ever-controversial 14-year rule.

Now, though, as Chavez battles cancer in a Cuban hospital, his role as garrulous international activist and rich godfather to fellow leftists around Latin America is under threat.

“All Venezuelan revolutionaries, and all people of good faith around the world, are praying for his recovery,” said Greivis Garcia, a 26-year-old mechanic at a vigil for Chavez in the January 23 slum full of revolutionary images.

“We need him so much. And so does the world. But whatever happens, Chavez will live forever, damn it!”

Global 'provocateur'

Should he die or be forced to stand down, faraway friends from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad would lose a loud and highly visible supporter.

Chavez has provided some concrete help to such allies — skirting Western sanctions to send a few controversial fuel shipments to Tehran and Damascus, and doling out homebuilding contracts to Chinese and Belarusian companies.

Yet his international role has been mainly symbolic.

From visiting Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 2000 to cheering Libya's Moammar Gadhafi during his final days in 2011; from calling former U.S. leader George W. Bush “the devil” to hailing the veteran Marxist militant known as Carlos the Jackal, Chavez has never lost an opportunity to goad and shock the West, and the United States in particular.

“Venezuela used to be known only for two things: oil and beautiful women. Now, it is famous the world over for just one: Chavez,” said a senior Western diplomat in Caracas.

“He has deliberately courted controversy from day one. It is hard to imagine that booming voice falling silent.”

Chavez has influenced some election campaigns around Latin America in recent years by showing support for leftist candidates and making clear that their victory could bring economic support from his government

Unlike former Cuban leader Fidel Castro during the Cold War, however, Chavez has not committed troops to foreign wars or helped train Marxist guerrillas to fight right-wing governments in their home countries.

He does not have a nuclear weapons program and he has continued to sell oil to the United States even when fiercely criticizing its policies.

In geopolitical terms, he is much more a man of rhetoric than of action.

The quietening of Chavez's voice might be a relief to Washington and local foes who see him as an embarrassing friend of dictators. But to many, especially round the Third World, he is admired — a bit like Castro — for standing up to U.S. power and daring to say what plenty of others thought.

Chavez is due to start a new, six-year term on Jan. 10, but he is still fighting to recover from his fourth cancer operation in just 18 months. He has named a preferred successor, Vice President and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, to be the ruling party's candidate in an election should Chavez be forced out.

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