RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's star is rising in much of South America, despite clashes with the United States and skepticism from Latin American conservatives about his intentions.
Chavez successfully has used his country's oil wealth to cultivate close relationships with the leaders of Brazil and Argentina and to win the good will of millions throughout South America.
This week, Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA pledged to spend $3 billion to purchase 36 oil tankers from Brazilian shipyards, a deal that would be the biggest foreign order of Brazilian naval vessels. The contract will generate about 10,000 new jobs, said Ariovaldo Rocha, president of Brazil's National Naval Industry Federation.
"Chavez's influence is growing, and his vision for Latin America is being embraced by more countries here," Rocha said. "He is winning much appreciation in Brazil with this ship purchase."
Chavez already has shown himself willing to invest Venezuelan money in his neighbors. He's bought $2.5 billion in Argentine bonds, making Venezuela the largest holder of Argentine debt and replacing financing from institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.
He also has agreed with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to build a natural gas pipeline that will distribute Venezuelan gas around the continent.
Still, many remain suspicious of Chavez, whose country was one of three to vote against summoning Iran before the U.N. Security Council over its suspected nuclear weapons program.
"This relationship is, in my view, quite dangerous since Venezuela has a problematic definition of foreign policy, especially in relation to Iran," said Argentine Sen. Federico Pinedo, head of the opposition party Commitment to Change.
But those voices appear to be a minority. Many openly sympathize with Chavez's vision of uniting Latin American countries against what he says is exploitative U.S. policies such as free-trade agreements and anti-narcotics campaigns. He calls it a "Bolivarian" revolution, named after South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Bolivar's likeness graced a float from the samba school that Venezuela's PDVSA sponsored in this year's Carnaval parade in Rio de Janeiro. The school won first place in the parade - a symbol of how Chavez's push into other countries has borne fruit.
Riordan Roett, head of John Hopkins University's Western Hemisphere program, said he believes Chavez sees himself as a Latin American unifier.
"This is a great egotist at work," Roett said. "He's using his money to promote like-minded governments who will bask in the glory of his Bolivarian revolution."
Chavez's success has disturbed Bush administration officials, who've accused the democratically elected Venezuelan president of ruling autocratically and suppressing dissent within his country.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking to the House International Relations Committee last month, said Chavez was "attempting to influence neighbors away from democratic processes" and called for "a united front against some of the things that Venezuela gets involved in."
But there's been no hard evidence linking Chavez to the kind of armed revolutionary movements that Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a close Chavez friend, supported in his heyday, and South American leaders have expressed little public interest in heeding Rice's call.
Even market-friendly, centrist politicians such as outgoing Chilean President Ricardo Lagos acknowledge that they must work with Chavez, and they've tried to calm waters stirred by the U.S.-Venezuelan spat.
"President Chavez has a certain vision of things, but this does not mean he is a destabilizing force in Latin America," Lagos said recently in an interview with the Chilean newspaper La Tercera.
Chavez's closest ally, other than Castro, has been newly elected Bolivian President Evo Morales, who quickly thanked Chavez for his support after he took office in January.
Chavez was also quick to show off his friendship with the new leader, who made opposition to U.S. policies a centerpiece of his campaign. Venezuela's PDVSA opened an office in the Bolivian capital of La Paz the day after Morales assumed power.
Chavez's moves appear to have endeared him to millions around the region, and he regularly draws huge crowds at summit meetings and other gatherings.
During the victory parade for the winning samba schools at the end of Carnaval last week, hundreds of Venezuelan flags could be seen as the PDVSA float passed by.
At Morales' inauguration celebrations, thousands waited to catch a glimpse of Chavez while waving Venezuela's gold, blue and red flags and chanting his name.
"He's a monumental leader of Latin America," said Marcos Poma, a merchant from the impoverished city of El Alto who watched Chavez and Morales greet the crowd together.
y said of the U.S. government.
© 2006 Knight Ridder