Chávez, Hugo (1954–)

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Chávez, Hugo (1954–)

In the years following his election as president of Venezuela in 1998, Hugo Chávez became a controversial and influential political figure in Latin American and worldwide. His close friendship with, and frequent praise of, Fidel Castro created fears that he intended to copy the Communist model at the same time that he was replacing the aging Cuban leader as Latin America's leading leftist icon. Castro, however, publicly advised Chávez that he did not need to follow the Cuban path in order to achieve his ambitious goals.

Chávez was born on July 28, 1954, into a lower-middle-class family in Sabeneta, a town in the rural state of Barinas. He entered the army after graduating from Venezuela's military academy in 1975, and in December 1982 he founded a clandestine group of middle-level officers that became the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario—200 (MBR-200). As an affirmation of its democratic commitment, the group called for a "civilian-military alliance" and held six clandestine congresses that were attended by disenchanted civilian leaders. The ranks of the MBR-200 swelled as a result of discontent among officers due to the harsh repression unleashed during the week of widespread disturbances and looting known as the "Caracazo," beginning on February 27, 1989. On February 4, 1992, the MBR-200 led an abortive coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez involving middle-level army officers, but the insurgents failed to receive backing from higher-ranking officers or other branches of the armed forces. In March 1994 the recently elected president, Rafael Caldera, granted Chávez and the other coup participants amnesty. Chávez's MBR was virtually alone in the 1990s in calling for electoral abstention, but in April 1997, when it changed its name to the Movimiento Quinta República (MVR), it launched the candidacy of Chávez for the 1998 presidential elections. During the nearly two-year campaign, Chávez moderated his positions on economic issues such as payment of Venezuela's foreign debt obligations and concentrated on his main campaign slogan, which was the calling of a constituent assembly. He was elected with 56 percent of the vote.


The first two years of the Chávez presidency saw the drafting of a new constitution and its ratification in a national referendum in December 1999, followed by general elections in July 2000, in which Chávez increased his vote from 56 percent to 59 percent. The Constitution embodied the concept of participatory democracy, which promoted direct popular input into decision making and was designed as a corrective to domination by political party elites, which was sometimes referred to as representative democracy. In spite of his moderation during this first stage, Chávez halted the plans for privatization undertaken by the previous government of Caldera. Thus, he rejected the position of his right-hand man Luis Miquilena, who favored the transfer of the social security system to the private sector in accordance with legislation passed in 1997. Furthermore, the new constitution prohibited the sale of stocks by the state oil company, PDVSA.

The government's enactment in 2001 of a package of forty-nine special laws that definitively reversed the neoliberal trends of the 1990s signaled the beginning of a second, more leftist stage. Most important, the Organic Hydrocarbons Law established majority government ownership of all mixed companies in charge of oil operations. The Lands Law subjected idle land to expropriation, while a special tax was devised for the owners of underutilized land. A broad coalition of employers, FEDECAMARAS, the labor confederation Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV; Confederation of Venezuelan Workers), and opposition parties united to oppose the legislation and organize general strikes that culminated in a violent confrontation in downtown Caracas on April 11, 2002, which set off a military coup. Two days later, tens of thousands of pro-Chavista poor people surrounded the presidential palace as well as military bases calling on officers to rebel against the provisional government. The concept of a civilian-military alliance developed by Chávez in the 1980s played itself out as he returned to power on April 13. In December 2002 an insurgent movement led by FEDECAMARAS and the CTV engineered a two-month general strike in another abortive attempt to oust Chávez by peaceful means. On August 15, 2004, the opposition attempted to force Chávez out of office for the third time, in this instance by a recall election in which the president emerged triumphant with 59 percent of the vote.


With his government firmly in control and the opposition thoroughly demoralized, Chávez promoted further radicalization at the same time that a new economic model began to emerge. Chávez declared his government "anti-imperialist," and, in 2005, he called for the construction of a novel brand of "socialism for the twenty-first century." He also announced a policy of respect for private property rights under normal circumstances while demanding that property holders fulfill social obligations. The government began to apply the Lands Law of 2001 to the private sector and also expropriated several companies that had closed down. In addition, it established free programs in barrios. Known as "missions," these programs were mainly in the areas of health and education. The educational missions ranged from literacy classes to university education and included modest stipends for enrollees. Twenty thousand Cuban doctors, along with a much smaller number of Venezuelan physicians, lived and set up offices in barrios, dispensing free medicine and working with community groups in order to promote preventive medicine. In sharp contrast with the past, business interests went unrepresented in the key government ministries in charge of economic decision making. In another action that undermined those interests, the federal tax agency, SENIAT, made use of new legislation to enforce the income tax system, which until then had been largely unenforced.

In December 2006 Chávez won the presidential elections with 63 percent of the vote, the highest in the modern democratic period beginning in 1958. A few days later he announced additional steps toward radicalization. In the first half of 2007, the state took control of the telephone company, CANTV; the Electricidad de Caracas; and the companies that exploited the heavy, unconventional oil of the Orinoco region. In short, throughout his first eight and a half years in power, Chávez has taken advantage of his position of strength following each political victory—such as the ratification of the constitution in 1999, the defeat of the coup in April 2002, the defeat of the general strike of 2002–2003, his triumph in the recall election of 2004, and his reelection in 2006—to introduce increasingly radical changes and consolidate his control.

See alsoCaldera Rodríguez, Rafael; Castro Ruz, Fidel; Pérez, Carlos Andrés; Venezuela: Venezuela since 1830.


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                                         Steve Ellner

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Chávez, Hugo (1954–)

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