All of that has increasingly frustrated even Venezuelans who said they favor some of Chávez's ideas, like Arley Carro, 36.
"I don't agree with the stuff he's been doing lately, " Carro said as he took a break from polishing the windows on an aged Pontiac coupe. "Changing the currency . . , concerning himself with kidnaps in other countries. He should be dealing with things that are more important, like crime, health, education. He's just looking to make a name for himself."
Amid all of the domestic problems, Chávez has shown no sign of clipping his ambitions abroad, continuing to hand out foreign aid to fellow leftist leaders as part of his dream to create a bloc of Latin American and Caribbean countries that would counter U.S. influence in the region. He is still making frequent trips to neighboring countries, including a swing through Central America last week.
Just 10 days ago, in a scene broadcast live throughout Latin America, Chávez stood outside the Miraflores presidential palace and with warm hugs triumphantly welcomed two Colombian hostages whose freedom he negotiated with the leftist FARC guerrillas.
His call to recognize Colombian guerrillas as armies drew strong rebukes from Bogotá and Washington, however, and sparked a war of words between him and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe that underlined long-standing concerns among moderate and conservative Latin American leaders.
"The region shouldn't allow Hugo Chávez to export his authoritarian populism, " former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo said in a telephone interview. "He's taking advantage of high levels of poverty and inequality. He takes advantage of the desperation of the poor."
But Chávez's billions in foreign aid -- the exact amount is difficult to calculate, but some estimates put pledges at more than $8 billion over the past year -- clearly have been buying friends.
In 2001, Chávez created Petrocaribe, a program that offers oil at subsidized prices to 16 Caribbean and Central American nations. The program paid dividends in 2006 when the 15-nation Caribbean Community backed Venezuela's bid for one of the 10 rotating seats on the U.N. Security Council, although it was ultimately unsuccessful.
"Venezuela's assistance to Dominica and CARICOM cannot go unnoticed, " Dominican Foreign Minister Charles Savarin said at the time in explaining his nation's support for Venezuela. The aid also extended the runway at Dominica's airport and provided asphalt, fuel storage tanks, university scholarships and $12 million for housing.
While Chávez has sought better relations with nearly every country in the region -- and has especially strong ties with Presidents Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Rafael Correa of Ecuador -- nowhere has he gained a deeper foothold than in Bolivia. Governed by Evo Morales, a leftist of Aymara indigenous descent who grew up herding sheep, it is South America's poorest country.
Chávez is sending subsidized diesel oil to Bolivia and spent at least $50 million last year in donations to the country's mayors and military units, according to Bolivian government officials.
Venezuelan money has also financed an archaeological dig; provided scholarships for 5,000 Bolivians to study in Venezuela; built roads and health clinics; financed the purchase of tractors, radio stations and fertilizer; and even allowed Bolivians to watch the 2006 World Cup soccer games.