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Venezuelans see some 'Don Quixote' in their populist leader

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A month ago, says Antonio Zambrano, surveying Caracas's historic Plaza Bolivar, there were maybe 4,000 people standing in single file right here.

The line wound its way around the Congress, cut up near the cathedral, and snaked around the statue of 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar. Mr. Zambrano had come, just like everyone else, for his "personal copy of 'Don Quixote.' "

Derided by some at the time, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is playing an Oprah Winfrey-like role in Venezuela, turning the country into one giant book club - and stimulating a fresh appreciation of literary classics.

"We are all going to read 'Quixote' to feed ourselves once again with that spirit of a fighter who came to undo injustice and fix the world," the populist leader announced on TV in April, promptly printing 1 million copies of Miguel de Cervantes's 1605 tome.

Everyone interviewed in the plaza on a recent afternoon was ready to discuss the man of La Mancha. Better still for the president, many are making positive comparisons between the idealistic would-be knight who roams Spain and dares to dream, and Chávez, a leader from humble origins who sees himself as the champion of the poor, traversing Latin America to speak to the masses about a better, common future.

Author Cristina Marcano, whose biography of the Venezuelan president was published this year, says Chávez "loves the story and surely sees himself as some sort of modern-day Don Quixote," because, she says, "he likes to see himself in very heroic terms."

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