The former army lieutenant colonel, who staged a failed coup in 1992 and was first elected president in 1998, often breaks into song in public, recites poetry during speeches, and plays pickup games of baseball with bodyguards and aides.
He relishes interviews with the likes of Barbara Walters, actor Danny Glover and supermodel Naomi Campbell, and grabbing the limelight when he travels abroad. During his trip to the United Nations in 2006, he called President Bush a "devil" and then headed to Harlem to tout his discounted-oil program before the world's media.
Many Venezuelans, especially the poor, retain enormous affection for Chávez.
"There's never been a president in the history of this country who has bothered to make sure old people get their pensions, " said Eroina González, 70.
As a retiree, said González, "I don't pay to use the subway -- I don't have to stand in line. That's good."
Chávez may owe much of his popularity to record income for Petróleos de Venezuela, the state oil company. The money has allowed him to offer jobs, free healthcare and cheap food to Venezuela's poor.
Poverty in Venezuela declined from 49 percent of the population in 1999 to 36.3 percent in 2006, according to government figures. Cuban doctors and teachers have played a crucial role in improving the quality of life, providing free medical care and education to slum dwellers as a form of repayment for the 90,000 to 100,000 barrels of petroleum that Venezuela ships daily to Cuba.
Chávez has been able to advance his goals because he controls virtually all power in the country. His supporters hold 160 of the 167 seats in Congress and 20 of the 24 state governorships. The judicial system, the Central Bank and the military rarely deviate from his line. And his presidential term runs until 2013 -- plenty of time to push his vision of socialism.
But Chávez also faces severe challenges at home. The Dec. 2 defeat gave political opponents their first major victory -- there is now talk of running one consensus opposition candidate for each spot in state and municipal elections late this year -- and highlighted Chávez's inability to forge the various parties that support him into a "Unified Party of the Left."
Chávez also seems to be facing discontent again within the military, which toppled him in a two-day coup in 2002. Retired Gen. Raúl Isaías Baduel, formerly Chávez's defense minister, has emerged as a key rival, and military commanders reportedly pushed a reluctant Chávez to accept the defeat.
Students have organized into a major opposition force, galvanized by Chávez's decision last year not to renew the operating license of RCTV, a television station known for its critical coverage of the president.
Crime is rampant -- experts say the number of homicides last year reached 16,000, roughly twice the number when Chávez took power in 1999 -- and the 22.5 percent inflation rate last year, the region's highest, eroded some of the gains enjoyed by the poor.
Basic foodstuffs are often unavailable, including milk, flour, cooking oil, black beans, eggs and chicken -- all items under government price controls. The government-owned Alba Caracas hotel -- formerly the Caracas Hilton -- often can't supply café con leche because there is no milk.
Corruption appears to be rising, but the government blames that on the persistence of "capitalist values" and has not prosecuted a single high-level official.