WASHINGTON Insecurity, "malignant narcissism" and the need for adulation are driving Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's confrontation with the United States, according to a new psychological profile.
Eventually, these personality traits are likely to compel Chavez to declare himself Venezuela's president for life, said Dr. Jerrold Post, who has just completed the profile for the U.S. Air Force.
Chavez won elections for a third term last December. Since then he has stepped up his anti-American rhetoric, vowed to accelerate a march towards "21st Century socialism" and suggested that he intends to stay in power until 2021 -- a decade beyond his present term.
But Post -- who profiled foreign leaders in a 21-year career at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and now is the director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University -- doubts that Chavez plans to step down even then. "He views himself as a savior, as the very embodiment of Venezuela," Post said in an interview.
"He has been acting increasingly messianic and so he is likely to either get the constitution rewritten to allow for additional terms or eventually declare himself president-for-life."
Post portrays Chavez as "a masterful political gamesman" who knows that his popularity largely rests on being seen as a strong leader who takes on the United States, the Venezuelan elite and a host of other perceived enemies -- often with public insults that are rarely used by other leaders.
"To keep his followers engaged, he must continue outrageous and inflammatory attacks," Post said.
Even Chavez's most determined opponents concede that he is a gifted orator and has a rare ability to mesmerize audiences. In the language of political psychology, this is a "charismatic leader-follower relationship."
DONKEYS, THIEVES AND CRYBABIES
Chavez has called U.S. President George W. Bush a "donkey," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice an "illiterate," former Mexican President Vicente Fox a "lapdog of imperialism" and Peruvian President Alan Garcia a "rotten thief" and a "crybaby."
"The major psychological reward for Chavez derives from being seen as the pugnacious openly defiant champion of the little man, as one of 'us' versus 'them,'" Post said.
In his assessment, one of the character traits that drive Chavez is "malignant narcissism," a term that denotes an extreme sense of self-importance and is usually coupled with extreme sensitivity to criticism.
"The arrogant certainty conveyed in his (Chavez's) public pronouncements is very appealing to his followers. But under this grandiose facade, as is typical with narcissistic personalities, is extreme insecurity," Post wrote in his profile "The Chavez Phenomenon" for the U.S Air Force.
Chavez's supporters dismiss such criticism as U.S. efforts to discredit a popular president. Chavez himself has repeatedly said Washington was engaged in psychological, political, economic and media warfare against him.
And yet, only last month, the Venezuelan government refused to renew the broadcast license of TV and radio network RCTV, the loudest voice against Chavez, highlighting his sensitivity to criticism.
His description of the Brazilian Congress as "puppets" came in response to a statement expressing concern for the freedom of expression after RCTV's closure. Chavez was so angry about a similar remark by the Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, that he said he would "take distance" from Spain.
"There are two circumstances when Chavez's messianic personality adversely affects his decision making, with a potential for flawed judgement," Post wrote in his study for the Air Force. "When he has just achieved a major success and when he perceives himself as failing."
That pattern has been consistent throughout his presidential terms -- bold actions when he felt heady with success; harsh rhetoric, confrontational moves and temporary depression when he felt weakened.
In the heady wake of his electoral triumph last December (he won 63 percent of the vote) Chavez nationalized the country's largest telecommunications company and its most important private electricity firm, as well as silencing RCTV.
But in the wake of one of his worst diplomatic defeats, the failure of a protracted and costly lobbying campaign to win a seat for Venezuela on the United Nations Security Council, Chavez was so despondent that he stayed away from an Ibero-American summit meeting in Uruguay. "My colleagues don't like me," he complained.
In Post's analysis, Chavez's flawed judgment was on display with his speech to the U.N. last September, when he called Bush "the devil" who had left a smell of sulphur in the assembly hall. Chavez's speech drew chuckles and applause -- but it lost him the U.N. Security Council seat that he had coveted.