Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez was born in 1954 and is a former Army Lieutenant Colonel.
A populist, Hugo Chávez has instituted what he calls a “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela, where key industries have been nationalized and oil revenues are used in social programs for the poor. Hugo Chávez is a vocal critic of the United States of America, in particular former President George W. Bush, who he once famously and publicly called a “donkey.” He is very popular with poor Venezuelans, who in February of 2009 voted to abolish term limits, allowing him to run for re-election indefinitely.
Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was born on July 28, 1954, to a poor family in the town of Sabaneta in the province of Barinas. His father was a schoolteacher and opportunities for young Hugo were limited: he joined the military at the age of seventeen. He graduated from the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences when he was 21 and was commissioned as an officer. He attended college while in the military but did not get a degree. After his studies, he was assigned to a counter-insurgency unit, the start of a long and noteworthy military career. He also served as head of a paratrooper unit.
Hugo Chávez in the military:
Hugo Chávez was a skilled officer, moving up in the ranks quickly and earning several commendations. He eventually reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He spent some time as an instructor in his old school, the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences. During his time in the military, he came up with “Bolivarianism,” named for the liberator of northern South America, Venezuelan Simón Bolívar. Hugo Chávez even went so far as to form a secret society within the army, the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200, or the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement 200. Hugo Chávez has long been an admirer of Simón Bolívar.
The coup of 1992:
Hugo Chávez was only one of many Venezuelans and army officers who were disgusted by corrupt Venezuelan politics, exemplified by President Carlos Pérez. Along with some fellow officers, Hugo Chávez decided to forcibly oust Carlos Pérez. In the morning of February 4, 1992, Hugo Chávez led five squads of loyal soldiers into Caracas, where they were to seize control of important targets including the Presidential Palace, the airport, the Defense Ministry and the military museum. All around the country, sympathetic officers seized control of other cities. Hugo Chávez and his men failed to secure Caracas, however and the coup was quickly put down.
Prison and entry into politics:
Chávez was allowed to go on television to explain his actions, and the poor people of Venezuela identified with him. He was sent to prison but vindicated the following year when President Pérez was convicted in a massive corruption scandal. Chávez was pardoned by President Rafael Caldera in 1994 and soon entered politics. He turned his MBR 200 society into a legitimate political party, the Fifth Republic Movement (abbreviated as MVR) and in 1998 ran for president.
Chávez was elected in a landslide at the end of 1998, racking up 56% of the vote. Taking office in February 1999, he quickly began implementing aspects of his “Bolivarian” brand of socialism. Clinics were set up for the poor, construction projects were approved and social programs were added. Chávez wanted a new constitution and the people approved first the assembly and then the constitution itself. Among other things, the new constitution officially changed the name of the country to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” With a new constitution in place, Chávez had to run for re-election: he won easily.
Venezuela’s poor loved Hugo Chávez, but the middle and upper classed despised him. On April 11, 2002, a demonstration in support of the national oil company’s management (recently fired by Hugo Chávez) turned into a riot when the demonstrators marched on the presidential palace, where they clashed with pro-Chavez forces and supporters. Hugo Chávez briefly resigned and the United States was quick to recognize the replacement government. When pro-Chavez demonstrations broke out all over the country, he returned and resumed his presidency on April 13. Hugo Chávez has always believed that the United States was behind the attempted coup.
Hugo Chávez has proven to be a tough and charismatic leader. His administration survived a recall vote in 2004, and used the results as a mandate to expand social programs. He has emerged as a leader in the new Latin American leftist movement and has close ties with leaders such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo. His administration even survived a 2008 incident when laptops seized from Colombian Marxist rebels seemed to indicate that Hugo Chávez was funding them in their struggle against the Colombian government.
Hugo Chávez and the US:
Much like his mentor Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez has gained much politically from his open antagonism with the United States. Many Latin Americans see the United States as an economic and political bully who dictates trade terms to weaker nations: this was particularly true during the George W. Bush administration. Ever since the coup, Hugo Chávez has gone out of his way to defy the United States, establishing close ties to Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua and other nations recently unfriendly towards the US. He has often gone out of his way to rail against US imperialism, even once famously calling George Bush a “donkey.”
Administration and legacy:
Hugo Chávez is a complicated political figure who has done much for Venezuela, both good and bad. Venezuela’s oil reserves are among the largest in the world, and he has used much of the profits to benefit the poorest Venezuelans. He has improved infrastructure, education, health, literacy and other social ills from which his people suffered. Under his guidance, Venezuela has emerged as a leader in Latin America for those who do not necessarily think that the United States is always the best model to follow.
Hugo Chávez’s concern for Venezuela’s poor is genuine. The lower socioeconomic classes have rewarded Hugo Chávez with their unwavering support: they supported the new constitution and in early 2009 approved a referendum to abolish term limits on elected officials, essentially allowing him to run indefinitely.
Not everyone thinks the world of Hugo Chávez, however. Middle and upper-class Venezuelans despise him for nationalizing some of their lands and industries and have been behind the numerous attempts to oust him. Many of them fear that Hugo Chávez is building dictatorial powers, and it is true that he has a dictatorial streak in him: he has temporarily suspended Congress more than once and his 2009 referendum victory essentially allows him to be President as long as the people keep electing him.
Venezuelan elections are rarely squeaky-clean and Hugo Chávez certainly has the power to pull off any number of crooked elections, even if the people decide to stop re-electing him. He has cracked down on the press, greatly increasing restrictions as well as punishments for slander. He drove through a change in how the Supreme Court is structured, which allowed him to stack it with loyalists.
Hugo Chávez is widely reviled in the United States for his willingness to deal with rogue nations such as Iran: conservative televangelist Pat Robertson once famously called for his assassination in 2005. His hatred for the United States government occasionally seems to approach the paranoid: he has accused them of being behind any number of plots to remove or assassinate him. This irrational hatred has driven him to pursue counter-productive strategies, such as supporting Colombian rebels, publicly denouncing Israel (resulting in hate crimes against Venezuelan Jews) and spending enormous sums on Russian-built weapons and aircraft.