Is Hugo Chavez Insane?

After a three-week, 15-country tour, Hugo Chavez returned home last month to a rapturous reception from tens of thousands of cheering supporters. At least, that's how the Venezuelan president seems to have perceived what others saw as a collective yawn from his countrymen. Not long ago, Chavez really could draw huge crowds and entrance them with his promises of revolutionary change. Nowadays, the stirring rhetoric and histrionics no longer work their magic. The 100,000 to 200,000 supporters his party organizers promised for a welcome-home rally were conspicuous by their absence. Despite the free buses laid on from all over the nation, no more than a few thousand die-hard followers and the odd passerby showed up.

The curious thing is that none of this appears to have registered with the former Army officer himself. "El Comandante" smiled and waved at the nonexistent crowds who failed to line the streets. Then, he challenged the opposition to a duel by demonstration: "If they put 10 million on the streets, I'll put 100 million," he boasted. That's four times the population of Venezuela--and about 20,000 times as many as showed up for the rally. The president, many say, lives in a world of his own. But is he really mentally unbalanced?

"He's a psychopath," claims Rafael Marin, secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action party (AD). "He shifts from states of euphoria to deep depressions." The AD has every reason to dislike the man whose 1992 coup attempt triggered the eventual downfall of an AD presidency. But a psychopath? "Our psychiatrists," Marin insists, "have compared the psychiatric profiles of people like Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin and Ecuadorean President Abdala Bucaram," who was ousted in 1997 on ground of mental incompetence. AD believes there is an urgent need to activate Article 233 of Chavez's new Constitution. It provides for a president to be removed on ground of "permanent physical or mental incapacity, certified by a medical board appointed by the Supreme Court, and with the approval of the National Assembly."

"None of them really believes this," counters psychiatrist Edmundo Chirinos, who has been Chavez's psychiatric adviser ever since meeting while Chavez was jailed after the coup. (He later won elections in November 1998.) "They won't find a single psychiatrist willing to say that the man is mad... He only cares about his concept of the world and what he calls his revolution. But mentally ill, he's not." Chirinos hastens to add: "Not because he is in any way unbalanced--but everyone needs help occasionally."

Marin concedes that, to be really sure, the president should be placed on a psychoanalyst's couch. Since Chavez is unlikely to volunteer, a team of AD psychiatrists studied his speeches and his behavior, then passed their report to lawyers who devised a procedure for applying Article 233. It calls for interviews not only with the president but "four close relatives" or friends.

Ultimately, of course, the strategy depends on the political balance of forces. Although it is the second biggest party in congress, AD holds only 26 of 165 seats. And while at least one smaller party has expressed interest in the initiative, there would have to be a split in Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) with 85 seats before it could pass. Still, Marin is optimistic: "If people knew how many MVR congressmen tell us, 'Cha is completely out of his mind,' they'd fall over backwards... but, of course, they won't say it publicly."

Even if AD's attempt to get Chavez certified fails, El Comandante does appear to be losing his grip. The price of the country's main export, oil, is heading south, and the economy--most experts agree--faces a rocky 2002. Chavez has slipped markedly in recent popularity polls, one of which showed him 10 points behind Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena. Not surprisingly, many in the opposition scent blood. Francisco Arias Cardenas, a former comrade in arms whose bid for the presidency failed last year, has begun gathering signatures for a referendum to revoke Chavez's mandate--another of the nine different constitutional alternatives for forcing him from office before his term ends in 2006.

Meanwhile in Washington, policymakers this week will hold closed-door discussions on a possible shift to a harder U.S. line against Chavez. The president loves to thumb his nose at the gringos. Before September 11, antics like visiting Saddam Hussein, selling oil to Cuba at cut-rate prices and acting chummy with Colombia's leftist guerrillas could be dismissed as mere pecadilloes. But the ambivalent statements on terrorism coming out of Caracas in recent weeks have set alarm bells ringing. Last week Chavez held up a picture of Afghan children reportedly killed in allied bombing and called for an end to the "slaughter of the innocents." Washington promptly recalled its ambassador for consultations.

None of this, says Chirinos, is likely to make his old friend change his maverick ways. "He's capable of self-immolation in the face of extreme situations," says the shrink. Really? Crazy.