Venezuelan president who championed a leftist revival

Hugo Chávez, Latin America's most controversial and vocal leader, was a masterful communicator and strategist.

Hugo Chávez, Latin America's most controversial and vocal leader, was a masterful communicator and strategist.

Sat, Mar 9, 2013, 00:00

Hugo Chávez: Hugo Chávez was the fiery populist who declared a socialist revolution in Venezuela, crusaded against US influence and championed a leftist revival across Latin America.

During nearly 14 years in office, he was Latin America’s most controversial and vocal leader, a perennial maverick who tried to shake up the status quo at home and internationally. He polarised Venezuelans with his confrontational and domineering style, yet was also a masterful communicator and strategist who tapped into Venezuelan nationalism.

He repeatedly proved himself a political survivor. As an army paratroop commander, he led a failed coup in 1992, then was pardoned and elected president in 1998. He won re-election three times and withstood a coup attempt in 2002 led by disgruntled military leaders.

Chávez underwent surgery in Cuba in June 2011 to remove what he said was a baseball-sized tumour from his pelvic region. The following February he had a second tumour removed from the same area. In March and April he had radiation treatment in Havana, Cuba. Before winning re-election last year, he said tests had shown he was cancer-free.

Chavez saw himself as the heir of 19th-century independence leader Simon Bolivar and hoped to fulfil Bolivar’s broken dream of a united South America. He was also inspired by his mentor Fidel Castro, and took on the ageing Cuban leader’s role as Washington’s chief antagonist in the western hemisphere.

He captivated his base by championing his country’s long-ignored poor. He poured his country’s oil wealth into social programmes ranging from state-run food markets to free adult education schemes.

Chávez also held on to support through sheer charisma and charm, and his career was filled with moments that played well for the cameras.

In a 2006 speech to the UN General Assembly, he called then president George W Bush “the devil”, saying the podium reeked of sulphur after Mr Bush’s address.

Critics saw Chávez as a typical Latin-American strongman who ruled through force of personality and showed disdain for democratic rules. He concentrated power in his hands as his allies dominated parliament. Some opponents faced criminal charges and were driven into exile.

Chávez insisted all the while that Venezuela remained a vibrant democracy and denied trying to restrict free speech. His soaring rhetoric regularly conflicted with reality. He frequently trumpeted socialism, and his government seized private farmland and nationalised companies, but the balance between Venezuela’s public and private sectors changed little during his presidency.

While Chávez hiked the minimum wage, high inflation and other economic woes eroded his popularity, especially in the latter years of his presidency. Despite such problems, he maintained a core of supporters who stayed loyal to the end.

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias was born in the rural town of Sabaneta in Venezuela’s western plains. He was the son of schoolteachers and the second of six brothers. The young Chávez was a fine baseball player and hoped he might one day pitch in the US major leagues. When he joined the military at 17, he aimed to keep honing his baseball skills in Caracas. But the young soldier immersed himself in the history of Bolivar and other Venezuelan heroes who had overthrown Spanish rule, and his political ideals began to take shape. Chávez burst into public view in 1992 as a paratroop commander leading a military rebellion to the presidential palace.

When the coup collapsed, he was allowed to make a televised statement in which he declared that his movement had failed “for now”. The speech, and those two words, launched his career, searing him into the memory of Venezuelans. He and other coup prisoners were released in 1994, and president Rafael Caldera dropped the charges against them.

Chávez then organised a new political party and ran for president in 1998, vowing to shatter Venezuela’s traditional two-party system. He was re-elected in 2000 in an election called under a new constitution.

He is survived by two ex-wives, Nancy Colmenares and Marisabel Rodriguez, and children Hugo Rafael, Maria Gabriela and Rosa Virginia by his first wife and Rosines by his second.