Chávez, Hugo: 1954

views updated May 18 2018

Hugo Chávez: 1954: President

The charismatic Hugo Chávez, elected president of Venezuela in 1998, is sometimes described by political pundits as Latin America's most controversial leader after Fidel Castro. Chávez has set this mineraland resource-rich South American nation on a course of political, economic, and social reform he describes as a "Third Way" between a socialist and a free-market economy. In 2002, Chávez faced growing national discontent as his promised economic betterments were not forthcoming.

Childhood in Farming Village

Hugo Chávez Frias was born July 28, 1954, in Sabaneta, a small farming town in Venezuela's western state of Barinas. Both parents were teachers, and they struggled to make ends meet, as Chávez recalled in an interview with Lally Weymouth of Newsweek. "I had to go with my father in the wee hours of the morning to help him fish to be able to eat. I sold sweets that my grandmother baked in the public square to have money to buy shoes and notebooks." Such a situation was not uncommon for much of Venezuela's population. Crude oil was a steady export out of Venezuela by 1930, but political and economic power remained in the hands of a small group of wealthy landowners and industrialists. For much of the twentieth century, caudillos, or military dictators, ruled from Caracas, its capital.

Chávez was a standout baseball player as a teen, a talent that helped gain him entry into the country's elite military academy. From there he joined the army and advanced through its ranks to head an elite paratrooper unit. Rankled by the corruption among the officer classbribery and payoffs had become common currency at nearly all levels of Venezuelan lifeChávez formed a secret anti-corruption organization in the late 1980s with other disgruntled officers. He captured international attention on February 4, 1992, when he commanded a force of 12,000 troops in a coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez. The insurrection was suppressed, "but not before Chávez, in an unforgettable televised jeremiad, denounced the moral and economic rot at the heart of that once-so-hopeful republic. He became an immediate hero," wrote Benjamin Moser in Newsweek International. For leading the coup, he was sentenced to prison.

The notoriously corrupt Pérez regime eventually fell byitself through the impeachment process. Years later, Chávez explained his reasoning behind his bid for power. "Here was a country full of gold, oil, iron, aluminum, water and fertile lands, yet 80 percent of the population was living in poverty," he told Joseph Contreras in Newsweek International. Released from jail in 1994, he became active in the political organization that he and other soldiers had founded, the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement.

At a Glance . . .

Born July 28, 1954, in Sabaneta, Barinas, Venezuela; son of schoolteachers; married to María Isabel Rodríguez; children: Rosa Virginia, María Gabriela, Hugo Rafael, Raúl Alfonzo, and Rosa Inés. Education: Earned degree from Military Academy of Venezuela, 1975; Simón Bolívar University, graduate degree, international relations Military Service: Venezuelan Army; held rank of lieutenant-colonel by 1990; commander of paratrooper unit. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement; Fifth Republic Movement.

Career: Graduated from Military Academy with rank of second lieutenant; joined Venezuelan Army, 1975; jailed for coup attempt, 1992; formed Fifth Republic Movement, political opposition group, c. 1992; elected president of Venezuela, 1998.

Addresses: Office Embassy of Venezuela, 1099 30th St. NW, Washington, DC 20007.

Became Legitimate Political Threat

Venezuela is one of the world's major exporters of oil. The country daily sends 1.5 million barrels to the United States alone. Still, the nation of 23 million has suffered under a moribund economy, with high rates of inflation and unemployment. By 1998, Venezuela, under President Rafael Caldera Rodríguez, was still suffering from a long-term recession. The country struggled to make its foreign debt payments when barrel prices on the world market fell. Venezuela also had a bloated public sector; nearly one in every three employed Venezuelans held a government job. Corruption continued: even middle-ranking government officials enjoyed such perks as chauffeurs for themselves and families. Tax evasion was widespread. There were estimates that 80 percent of customs revenues went uncollected because of bribery at the ports and borders.

Chávez formed the Polo Patriotico (Patriotic Pole), a coalition of 14 small parties, and decided to make a bid for the presidency under the banner of a "Fifth Republic Movement." His 1998 campaign tapped into the national mood of discontent and won widespread support. He promised great changes should he be elected, foremost among them an end to corruption. Concerning the powerful Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), or state-run oil company, he pledged to give it less financial support and make it more accountable. He called for a constituent assembly, and charged the country's past leaders and long-entrenched political organizations with selling the country's oil, gas, and mineral resources off to foreign investors. They alone profited from such deals, Chávez asserted, while the majority of ordinary Venezuelans did not. His speeches were sprinkled with quotes from Christ and Simón Bolívar, the hero of Venezuela's independence movement, but his opponents charged him with demagoguery. Chávez told Time International in November of 1998 that his foes were justified in smearing his name. "There's an offensive against uspainting me as Hitler or Mussolini, a crazed assassin," Chávez told reporters. "What they're really scared of is losing all that they're used to robbing from this country."

Chávez's supporters ranged from the poor to the left to the conservative business community in Caracas. He was called "El Comandante," and those who gathered for his political rallies often sported the trademark of his Fifth Republic Movement, a red parachutist's beret. In polling on December 6, 1998, he was elected with 56 percent of the vote to become the youngest president in Venezuelan history. He immediately began fulfilling his pledge to reform Venezuela entirely. In July of 1999, a constitutional assembly met and drastically reduced the powers of Congress. The assembly also began a process of judicial reform to rid the court system of corruption. Chávez also purged the Customs Service, and revenues at the country's major seaport, Puerto Cabello, doubled.

Chávez's promised new constitution was drafted and put to voters in a referendum on December 15, 1999. It was approved by 71 percent of voters. The changes were sweeping: Venezuela officially changed its name to the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," stipends were granted for stay-at-home mothers, and university education became free. The power of Venezuela's political parties was also dramatically slashed. For this, Chávez was accused of decimating the country's democratic institutions, but he explained in an interview with Time that his goal was to bring "moral" as well as "electoral" power to Venezuelans. "Moral power is a restructuring of offices that already existthe comptroller general and the prosecutor general," Chávez stated. "These institutions are supposed to be independent, but they're used for political purposes. They're appointed by Congress and serve as a shelter for corruption."

Re-Elected with Larger Majority

Venezuela's new constitution called for elections in 2000. Chávez won a sound 60 percent of the vote. He was a charismatic leader, and citizens regularly pressed "wish letters" into his hands during public appearances. Tales circulated that Chávez had interceded to help many in personal or financial crises. His weekly radio call-in program, Alo Presidente, offered him a chance to solve problems, dispense wisdom, and explain his government's policies.

At times, Chávez's foreign policy worried Washington, for the United States was dependent on Venezuelan oil and interested in maintaining good relations. Chávez spurned an offer of ships and Army Corps of Engineers personnel after 1999 floods killed several thousand, and he refused to allow anti-drug flights over Venezuelan territory. As Chávez told Newsweek 's Weymouth, "what would be the opinion of President Clinton if President Chávez asked for permission to conduct flights over Washington? We cannot violate our sovereignty." He also made visits to Iraq and its president, Saddam Hussein, as well as to Libya and to Cuba. He invited Castro for a state visit, where they played baseball for the press. The Chávez government was also accused of aiding leftist rebels in next-door Colombia. Interviewed by Maria Amparo Lasso for Newsweek International, Chávez stated his position clearly. "We do not have a relationship with the guerrillas," he told Lasso. "We decided not to continue the line of previous Venezuelan governments who declared that the guerrillas were the common enemy of Colombia and Venezuela. The guerrillas are not our enemy, unless they attack Venezuela, which has not occurred. What we've done is facilitate the paths for a dialogue to peace."

Since taking office, Chávez has been accused of displaying increasingly dictatorial behavior. In June of 2001, the El Pantaletazo, or "G-String" Scandal erupted. An anonymous mailing to 140 top Venezuelan military officers included women's undergarments and the taunt that they were not macho enough to stage a coup against Chávez. At other times, Chávez charged that Pérez, the former president, now living in Miami, was behind a conspiracy to unseat him.

Chávez provoked a minor diplomatic squabble in the fall of 2001, when he appeared on Venezuelan national television and displayed a photograph of slain Afghan women and children. He linked their deaths to the U.S.-led military effort launched that October. "We must find the terrorists," a report in NotiSur quoted him as saying. "But not like this. Look at these children. These children were alive yesterday. They were eating with their parents and a bomb fell on them." The U.S. ambassador to Venezuela was recalled to Washington.

Significant Land Reform Law

Later that year, Chávez forced 49 economic decrees through the national assembly just before its special legislative powers were slated to expire. The most dramatic of them was a land reform program. Statistics indicated that 70 percent of Venezuela's fertile land was owned by just three percent of the population; moreover, only four percent of arable land was being farmed. In the new Ley de Tierras, unused land would be given to the landless poor. The Ley began with unused government land, but there were worries that private property would be confiscated as well. That and other economic reforms served to increase the emigration of middle-class Venezuelans, who had been relocating to Florida and Spain since Chávez first took office. Even the Vatican representative in Caracas complained, declaring that the Chávez government was becoming too radical.

There was also a mainstream reaction to Chávez's 49 reforms. The country experienced a widespread work stoppage and a series of bank closures on December 10th. Chávez then surprised many by stating he would consider changing some of his more controversial laws to maintain peace in the country. Despite the conciliatory remarks, his approval rating continued to plummet. He made an especial target of El Nacional, the independently-owned Caracas daily. Its offices were attacked by a rock-throwing mob of Chávez supporters in January of 2002. The president lost further ground after the incident, widely believed to have been staged by his government. Later that month he lost some of his support in the Asamblea Nacional, when members of the Fifth Republic Movement, irate with his policies, allied with the opposition.

In February of 2002, there were further hints that serious opposition was gathering inside the armed forces, and more than one high-ranking officer began to publicly call for Chávez's resignation. Protests took place in the streets of the capital, mimicking those in Argentina in recent weeks, with women banging pots and pans and denouncing government policies. "In a poor Caracas neighborhood, [Chávez] was greeted not with roses but with bitter protesta sign that the loathing he inspires in the middle and upper classes had dangerously percolated into even the indigent areas that had once invested such hopes in his revolution," wrote Moser in Newsweek International. The New York Times stated that the Bush administration had received hints that a coup might be imminent, and an unnamed State Department source said the Venezuelan representative was warned not to subvert the democratic process in the country. A day before, a fourth high-ranking military officer called for Chavez to step down. "Remember that the people are above all else. And our loyalty is to the nation, not with a particular leader," Air Force General Román Gómez Ruiz was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "President Chávez, for the good of the country and for love of the armed forces, resign peacefully and take responsibility for your failure." But Chávez gave an interview to the French newspaper, Le Monde, and claimed the alleged dissatisfaction among the military was a publicity plot. "Venezuela has a government that was legitimately elected and enjoys popular support," the New York Times Chávez told the French paper. "I might even say that it enjoys more popular support than any other country in the American continent."

Chávez is still an avid baseball player and an occasional playwright as well. With his second wife, María Isabel Rodríguez, he has five children.



Current Leaders of Nations, Gale, 1999.


Business Week, December 13, 1999, p. 34; September 18, 2000, p. 66; May 28, 2001, p. 35.

Commonweal, October 23, 1998, p. 11; February 11, 2000, p. 11.

Cuba News, November 2000, p. 10.

Economist, December 12, 1998, p. 35; February 6, 1999, p. 33; June 5, 1999, p. 33; September 25, 1999, p. 38; February 5, 2000, p. 28; August 5, 2000, p. 35; November 18, 2000, p. 4; December 9, 2000, p. 4; January 20, 2001, p. 4; January 27, 2001, p. 1; March 24, 2001, p. 4; October 27, 2001; February 2, 2002; February 16, 2002.

Editor & Publisher, February 4, 2002, p. 28.

International Economy, May 2001, p. 28.

LatinFinance, July 2000, p. 46.

Latin Trade, November 1999, p. 22.

NACLA Report on the Americas, May 2000, p. 15.

New Republic, June 25, 2001, p. 16.

Newsweek, October 23, 2000 p. 45.

Newsweek International, September 13, 1999, p. 39; October 4, 1999, p. 50; October 4, 1999 p. 52; December 27, 1999, p. 23; February 28, 2000, p. 22; July 31, 2000, p. 21; February 5, 2001, p. 4; August 20, 2001, p. 52; November 12, 2001, p. 49; January 28, 2002, p. 29.

Oil Daily, July 27, 1999; November 30, 2000; January 10, 2001; February 26, 2001; December 11, 2001; February 20, 2002.

New York Times, February 26, 2002.

NotiSur: South American Political and Economic Affairs, September 14, 2001; November 9, 2001; January 18, 2002.

Time, October 9, 2000, p. 70.

Time International, November 23, 1998, p. 26; May 10, 1999, p. 19; August 9, 1999, p. 16; May 29, 2000, p. 26.

U.S. News & World Report, December 21, 1998, p. 40; June 11, 2001, p. 36.

On-lineávezing.htm (February 25, 2002).

Carol Brennan

Chávez, Hugo

views updated Jun 11 2018

Chávez, Hugo 1954-


Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and his policies have sparked controversy at home, throughout the Latin American region, and in the United States. Whereas Chávezs supporters value his social agenda, critics perceive him as ideological, intolerant, and impractical. Chávez, however, has stayed in power through democratic means and carries overwhelming support, despite large-scale attempts to remove him from office.

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was born in Sabaneta, Barinas, on July 28, 1954. He graduated from Venezuelas Academy of Military Sciences with a degree in engineering in 1975. Chávez first gained national attention in 1992 when he led an unsuccessful military coup to oust President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez and a group of fellow military officers had founded the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement ten years earlier; the group honored the nineteenth-century Venezuelan freedom fighter Simón Bolívar (1783-1830). Chávez sought to restore the Bolivarian ideas of national sovereignty, economic independence, and social services for the people. With these ideals, Chávez led the failed 1992 revolt, and was subsequently imprisoned for two years.

By 1994 Chávez had transformed from a military rebel to a democratic player (Canache 2002, p. 69). He founded the political party Movement of the Fifth Republic leading up to the 1998 presidential elections. His platform emphasized his desire to end corruption, return oil to state control, and eliminate poverty (Marcano and Tyszka 2004, p. 31). This platform earned him political victory in 1998 with 56 percent of the vote, in 2000 with 60.3 percent, and in 2006 with 63 percent (Canache 2002, p. 69; Marcano and Tyszka 2004, p. 31; Political Database of the Americas). Chávezs popularity has grown since he shifted from the military to the political stage.

Chávezs mass appeal remains debatable. Scholars and journalists attribute his success to his emphasis on the countrys poor through health and education programs (Canache 2002, p. 70; Fukuyama 2007, p. A18). Francis Fukuyama writes that Chávez maintains local appeal because of his social agenda, in which he has opened clinics staffed with Cuban doctors in poor barrios throughout Venezuela (2007, p. A18). The rise in oil prices on the world markets has allowed the government to increase social spending despite the countrys external debt (Guevara 2005, p. 36).

However, critics argue that the statistics contradict the myth. Francisco Rodríguez argues that social spending in Venezuela decreased from 31.5 percent prior to Chávezs administration to 29.3 percent by 2004. The reduction of illiteracy dropped slightly, from 1.1 million before Chávez became president to 1.0 million illiterate Venezuelans over the age of fifteen during his tenure (Rodríguez 2007, p. 2). The percentage of poor families increased from 42 percent in 1999 to 60 percent in 2004, and unemployment levels reached 15 percent in both 1999 and 2004 (Marcano and Tyszka 2004, p. 390). Instead, Chávezs popularity is based on the countrys double-digit economic growth, according to Rodriguez.

Chávezs opponents have threatened his grasp on power. In April 2002 rebel military officers staged a failed coup, which some Venezuelan officials believe was backed by the U.S. government (Morsbach 2006). Tw o years later, the opposition conducted a failed recall referendum, in which 59 percent of Venezuelans voted to allow Chávez to complete the remainder of his term (BBC News 2004).

As of 2007, Venezuelas economy remained stable while a large number of Venezuelans lived in deep poverty. Nevertheless, Chávezs support surpassed that of his critics.

SEE ALSO Coup dEtat; Left Wing; Nationalization; Petroleum Industry; Populism; Poverty; Social Movements; Socialism


BBC News. 2004. Venezuela Ratifies Chavez Victory. August 27.

Canache, Damarys. 2002. From Bullets to Ballots: The Emergence of Popular Support for Hugo Chávez. Latin American Politics and Society 44 (1): 69-90.

Fukuyama, Francis. 2007. Keeping Up With the Chávezes. Wall Street Journal, February 1: A17.

Guevara, Aleida. 2005. Chávez, Venezuela, and the New Latin America: An Interview with Hugo Chávez. New York: Ocean Press.

Marcano, Cristina, and Alberto Barrera Tyszka. 2004. Hugo Chávez sin uniforme: Una historia personal. Caracas, Venezuela: Grupo Editorial Random House Mondadori, S.A.

Morsbach, Greg. 2006. Venezuela Marks Coup Anniversary. BBC News, April 12.

Political Database of the Americas. Georgetown University, Center for Latin American Studies.

Rodríguez, Francisco. 2007. Why Chávez Wins. Foreign Policy.

Sarita D. Jackson

Chávez, Hugo

views updated May 17 2018

Hugo Chávez

July 28, 1954 Sabaneta, Venezuela

President of Venezuela

Venezuela is a South American country rich in natural resources, especially oil. In fact, outside of the Middle East it is the number one supplier of oil to the world. Despite that, during the latter half of the twentieth century the country experienced a devastating recession (decline in the economy), the majority of Venezuelans lived in poverty, and most of the country's power was held by a handful of the elite. When former paratrooper Hugo Chávez took over the presidency in 1998 he promised widespread change; he set about establishing a multitude of reforms, including literacy campaigns, subsidized food programs, land redistribution, and political party reorganization. As a result, the charismatic Chávez attracted legions of loyal fans among the Venezuelan lower classes, which angered the wealthy business class. Venezuela essentially became a country divided, and Chávez's opposition vowed to remove him from power at all costs. Chávez, however, has proved to be unstoppable. He was reelected by an overwhelming majority in 2000, survived an attempted takeover in 2002, and emerged victorious from a recall vote in August 2004.

From baseball to revolutionary

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias was born on July 28, 1954, in Sabaneta, Venezuela, a small farming village located in the western state of Barinas. Even though both of his parents were school-teachers, the family, like most Venezuelans, was poor and struggled to make ends meet. Eventually Chávez's father, Hugo de los Reyes, gained political power when he became regional director of education and later the governor of Barinas.

Young Chávez escaped a life of poverty thanks to his skill as a baseball player. Baseball is the leading sport in Venezuela. The country has major leagues and national tournaments just like in the United States. There are also several competitions in which players from Central and South American countries participate. Following high school the talented player was given a scholarship to the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences, a prestigious college, where he earned a degree in military science and engineering. From there Chávez joined the army and quickly rose through the ranks to become head of an elite paratrooper unit.

"I am convinced that the path to a new, better and possible world is not capitalism, the path is socialism."

While in the army Chávez was troubled by the corruption he saw among high-ranking military officers. Actually, the regime in power at the time, headed by Carlos Andrés Pérez (1922–), was notorious for widespread bribery and payoffs. Deciding to take a stand, Chávez organized a group of like-minded soldiers and secretly formed an anticorruption organization called the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement. In 1992, Chávez and his band of over twelve thousand attempted to overthrow the Pérez government in a bloody coup that cost hundreds of lives. Although the coup was unsuccessful and Chávez ended up going to prison for the next two years, he became a national hero thanks to the media. In televised broadcasts he came across as a passionate speaker determined to make a change.

El Comandanté

When Chávez was released from prison two years later, a new president was at the helm, but the plight of Venezuelans was no better. Prices of goods and unemployment were high, 80 percent of the population was living in poverty, the foreign debt was staggering, and corruption among government officials continued unchecked. Chávez decided to make a bid for the presidency and formed the Polo Patriotico (Patriotic Pole), which was composed of fourteen small political parties representing a wide variety of views. Disillusioned by the current administration, and tired of having political power in the hands of the upper classes, millions of poor Venezuelans rallied in support of Chávez, who they called El Comandanté (The Commander).

In rousing speeches Chávez condemned the two major political parties of Venezuela, accusing leaders of dishonesty, bowing to foreign investors, and mismanaging the country's oil revenues. He stressed that the nation was desperate for change and he vowed that changes would be made if he was elected. For example, he promised to put an end to government corruption and to revamp the Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-run oil company, which was responsible for exporting billions of barrels of oil per year. Hundreds of thousands of citizens attended political rallies where the charismatic Chávez delivered speeches peppered with quotes from the Bible and from his hero Simon Bolívar (1783–1830), the nineteenth-century revolutionary leader of Venezuela.

On December 6, 1998, Chávez was elected president by 56 percent of the vote, becoming the youngest elected president in Venezuelan history. On the night of his win, El Comandanté addressed the throngs of people in the streets, and according to U.S. News & World Report, he shouted, "You are the future owners of Venezuela." He went on to tell reporters, "People voted for a profound transformation, and they will have one." The transformation began immediately as Chávez set about overhauling the entire government structure of Venezuela.

He formed a constitutional assembly that drastically reduced the powers of Congress; the assembly also reviewed the judicial branch in an attempt to rid the courts of corrupt judges. In the biggest move, Chávez and his assembly reworked the Venezuelan constitution; the new version was approved by 75 percent of voters on December 15, 1999. The changes enacted were broad in scope: The country's name was changed to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela; the term of office of the president was extended from five to six years; the Congress was replaced by a unicameral (single body) National Assembly; and the power of political parties was slashed. Social reforms were also added, including free university-level education.

Diablo or savior?

The new constitution called for elections to be held in 2000. Chávez easily won the presidency with 60 percent of the vote; his supporters also won the majority of seats in the new unicameral assembly. As a result, Chávez succeeded in concentrating power in his own hands—and he stretched that power to the limit. In 2001 he passed a set of forty-nine economic laws, including the Hydrocarbons Law, which brought control of the PDVSA under the direction of the Minister of Energy, who, of course, was part of Chávez's cabinet. The most dramatic law was a land reform program called the Ley de Tierras (Land Law). At the time nearly 70 percent of Venezuela's farmable land was owned by less than 3 percent of the population. In addition, according to national statistics, only 4 percent of useable land was being farmed. Under the new law, land that was not being used would be given to poor farmers.

Wealthy landowners and middle-class business owners were outraged, fearing that privately held property would be confiscated by the government. Chávez further angered wealthy Venezuelans in two more ways: He attempted to consolidate all existing labor unions into one state-controlled Bolivarian Labor Force; and he was using oil revenues to implement his many social programs. Such programs included literacy campaigns in the poorest regions of the country, new health clinics, and paved roads in rural areas. The most high-profile programs were the Chavista Missions, outreach programs directed at groups of citizens who had historically been ignored. For example, a public health mission called Barrio Adentro employed over ten thousand doctors dedicated to serving in areas of Venezuela where no doctors were available before.

Chávez kept in contact with his adoring public thorough his weekly radio broadcast, Alo President, a call-in program where he answered questions about public policy and helped average citizens with their problems. On the other hand, the press became increasingly wary of the new president when, in an attempt to gain overall control, he tried to pass laws that would censor the media. The opposition accused Chávez of going too far; they also claimed he was a kind of diablo, or devil, who was undermining the democratic state of Venezuela. In an interview with Lally Weymouth, Chávez dismissed such charges: "Some sectors, from ignorance or prejudice, keep saying that in Venezuela there is a process of concentration of power underway. The truth is we are doing away with an authoritarian model that was disguised as a democracy. Representative democracy failed completely in the past. Party leaders who said they represented the people, betrayed them. I want you to understand the battle we are waging. It's a revolution."

Country revolts: 2002

By 2002, despite Chávez's many social reforms, the economy of Venezuela was in worse shape than it was in 1998 when he first took office. Unemployment rates were still in the double digits and decreasing oil prices were putting a strain on the national budget. To make matters worse Chávez had essentially cornered himself: He could not cut social spending without losing the support of the lower classes and he could not cut military spending without losing the loyalty of his military troops. In mid-2002, with no economic policy forthcoming, groups of protesters began storming the streets of Caracas, the nation's capital. The protests were military-backed, but some demonstrators were average citizens who banged pots and pans and called for Chávez to resign.

During the week of April 8, 2002, the protests took a violent turn. On April 11, fighting broke out between protesters, the national guard (controlled by Chávez), and the military police, which was controlled by the opposition. Guns were fired, resulting in the deaths of a least seventeen people; hundreds more were wounded. Feeling he had no choice, Chávez resigned on April 12, and was taken into custody by members of Fedecámaras, Venezuela's business federation. That same day the president of Fedecámaras, Pedro Carmona Estanga, took over leadership of the country. He disbanded the National Assembly and called for a presidential election during the coming year. Support for El Comandanté, however, was still strong. Thousands took to the streets, rioting, looting, and demanding that Chávez be reinstated. On April 14, Carmona resigned, thus ending the shortest presidency in Venezuelan history.

Although Chávez returned to power only two days after being ousted, his victory was short-lived. Problems continued to plague his presidency throughout 2002, and they reached a climax in December when oil workers went on strike. The country virtually stopped all oil exports during the two-month ordeal, sending the Venezuelan economy into a tailspin from which it never fully recovered. In retaliation Chávez fired the upper management of the PDVSA, as well as eighteen thousand PDVSA employees. He replaced the workers with his own associates and appointed Ali Rodriguez, a former revolutionary from the 1960s, to act as chief executive officer of the PDVSA.

Chávez's actions further fueled the animosity of the opposition, who continued to claim that although he was democratically elected, Chávez was becoming a dangerous dictator who needed to be stopped. They pointed to his mismanagement of domestic policies, but also to his questionable foreign policy. The international community, in general, viewed Chávez with disapproval when he virtually overhauled the political workings of Venezuela in 1999. Suspicions continued to grow when Chávez began to seek alliances with controversial dictators, including Fidel Castro (c. 1927–) of Cuba and Saddam Hussein (1937–) of Iraq. In particular, the relationship between Venezuela and the United States had become shaky at best. During the administrations of both Bill Clinton (1946–) and George W. Bush (1946–), Chávez spoke out publicly against U.S. economic and foreign policies. He also denounced the United States as being an imperialist power, meaning the United States often inserted its influence—either economic or military—in areas of the world where help was not asked for or needed.

Survives recall

By 2003 Chávez's opposition had grown into a coalition called the Democratic Coordinating Committee, which included the Fedecámaras and many of Venezuela's unions. Once again the opposition decided to try and remove the president from power—this time through legal means. Venezuela's constitution, rewritten by Chávez and his assembly, contained a clause allowing the population to recall elected officials, including the president. The opposition spend months collecting over three million signatures on a petition calling for Chávez's removal from office. They presented the petition to Venezuela's National Electoral Council in November of 2003.

Although anti-Chávez demonstrations were waged from late 2003 until voting took place in August, the Venezuelan president still maintained a strong following among the lower classes, which accounted for about eighteen or nineteen million voters. Chávez himself was not silent during this period, traveling across the country on a campaign trail and using the slogan "Chávez no se vá" (Chávez will not go). On August 15, 2004, a record number of the population turned out to vote, so many that officials extended the polling hours until after midnight. Streams of people waited for hours to vote, standing in lines that sometimes stretched for over half a mile. The wait, however, did not bother most citizens. As one Venezuelan told Elizabeth DiNovella, a reporter for the Progressive, "We are defending our right to democracy."

When all the ballots were tallied Hugo Chávez remained president, taking 59 percent of the vote. On the night of his win, a triumphant Chávez remarked to DiNovella, "The no of the campaign is the no of Cristo [Christ] against imperialism. It's the no of Christ against leaving behind the poor. This is an ancient no. And today it is reborn by this flood of people." But the opposition was far from satisfied, and after the election they cried fraud, making accusations that there had been discrepancies both in voter registration and at the polls.

How Is an American President Recalled?

Just as Venezuela's constitution contains a clause allowing a president to be recalled from office, so too, does the U.S. Constitution. In the United States, however, the process is started with something called impeachment and American citizens are not given the opportunity to vote. According to Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, "The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors." Impeachment does not mean removal from office; it refers to serious charges brought against an official that may lead to his removal from office.

According to the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives has the sole power to bring impeachment charges against the president. If the majority of representatives pass the impeachment resolution, meaning they feel the charges are justified, the matter is turned over to the Senate. In the Senate there is a trial, which is presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. After all testimony is heard, a vote is taken. If two-thirds of the Senate finds the president guilty as charged, he is impeached. If an official is found to be guilty he may be banned from ever running for public office again, and depending on the "crime," he may be tried in a regular court of law.

In U.S. history only two presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives: Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) in 1868 and Bill Clinton (1946–) in 1998. Johnson was accused of, among other things, misuse of the presidential veto power and election tampering. In the Senate Johnson came one vote short of being found guilty and so remained president. Bill Clinton was found guilty by representatives of committing perjury (lying) during a grand jury trial and of obstructing justice. In 1999, the Senate voted him innocent on all charges.

The entire process, however, had been overseen by two impartial groups: the Carter Center, headed by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter (1947–), and the Organization of American States. In statements made during a press conference on August 17, and reported in the the Progressive, Carter claimed that Chávez had won the election fair and square: "We have no reason to doubt the integrity of the electoral system or the accuracy of the referendum results. There is no evidence of fraud, and any allegations of fraud are completely unwarranted."

A country divided

Although Hugo Chávez emerged victorious from his 2004 recall election, Venezuela emerged as a country clearly divided. According to Fred Rosen in a NACLA Report on the Americas, no political middle ground exists: citizens are either adamantly pro-Chávez or intensely anti-Chávez. Such division will make the remaining two years of his presidency very difficult ones.

In addition, Chávez continues to foster a hostile relationship with many Western countries, especially the United States. At a January 2005 world conference held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Venezuelan leader spoke out vehemently against the Bush administration, and talked of an "open aggression" between the two nations. He claimed, however, that the aggression was directed at Venezuela from the United States. Several weeks prior to the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (1954–) asserted that the Venezuelan leader was "a negative force in the region." Chávez said that such claims were unfounded. "The most negative force in the world today," Chávez contended, "is the government of the United States."

Chávez ended his speech on a positive note, echoing the sentiments with which he began his political career: "We must start talking again about equality." And a month later, it seemed that perhaps small steps were being taken toward healing relations between Venezuela and the United States. According to, while speaking to an assembly of the Organization of American States, Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez said that Venezuela "had only one enemy: poverty." "We extend our hand in friendship," Rodriguez added, "since we know that peace, based on mutual respect, is the best path toward achieving prosperity."

For More Information


DiNovella, Elizabeth. "Chavez's Staying Power." The Progressive (October 2004): pp. 31–35.

"From Prisoner to President." U.S. News & World Report (December 21, 1998): pp. 40–42.

Karon, Tony. "Chavez May Survive Venezuela's Strike." Time (December 18, 2002).

Rosen, Fred. "Chavez Confirmed, Venezuela Still Divided." NACLA Report on the Americas (November/December 2004): pp. 8–11.

Weymouth, Lally. "The Battle We Are Waging: Interview with Hugo Chavez." (October 23, 2000): p. 45.

Web Sites

Labott, Elise, and Juan Carlos Lopez. "Venezuelan Official Hints at Possible U.S. Attack." World (February 23, 2005). (accessed on August 22, 2005).

Newman, Lucia. "Record Turnout for Chavez Vote." World (August 16, 2004). (accessed on August 22, 2005).

Sojo, Cleto A. "Venezuela's Chavez Closes World Social Forum with Call to Transcend Capitalism." (January 31, 2005). (accessed on August 22, 2005).

Sullivan, Kevin. "Chavez Casts Himself as the Anti-Bush." Washington Post (March 15, 2005). (accessed on August 22, 2005).

Chávez, Hugo

views updated Jun 08 2018

Hugo Chávez

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez (born 1954) has seized an important role on the world political stage with his stance of confrontation toward the United States and his ambitious program of social reforms.

Even more so than other Latin American countries, oilrich Venezuela has historically been a country sharply divided between rich and poor. Chávez has faced vigorous opposition from the country's traditional elites, spending two years in prison after a 1992 coup attempt, surviving a coup launched against him in 2002, and beating back a recall attempt in 2004. He was popular, even venerated, among poor Venezuelans, for he took steps in the first years of his rule to distribute more of the country's burgeoning oil income among its poorer citizens. Yet Venezuelans were deeply split over the merits of Chávez's reign, and international observers pointed to a growing atmosphere of repression and a concentration of power in Chávez's hands. After meeting Chávez, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez said, according to the London Independent: "I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot."

Became Star on Diamond

Chávez was born in Venezuela's Western grasslands region, near the town of Sabaneta in the state of Barinas, on July 28, 1954. Both his parents were schoolteachers, but that was hardly a lucrative profession in the Venezuelan backcountry; his father had only a sixth-grade education himself, and the family was poor as well as dark-skinned, in a country with strong racial divisions and an almost exclusively white-skinned elite. Chávez was sent to live with his father's mother in Sabaneta and helped raise extra money for the family by selling homemade candies produced by his grandmother. The young Chávez possessed an ability that set him apart from the crowd in Venezuela: he was an excellent baseball (and softball) player in a baseball-crazy country. He played on a national baseball team called the Criollitos de Venezuela in 1969 and continued to excel at the sport as an adult, playing for teams connected with military or educational institutions.

With a desire to make something of himself, Chávez thought about trying to become a major league baseball player. He also thought vaguely about entering politics. After attending the inauguration of Venezuela's president when he was 19, he wrote in his diary (as quoted by Alma Guillermoprieto in the New York Review of Books) that he "imagined myself walking there with the weight of the country on my own shoulders." But a political career was not a feasible option, and Chávez joined the military. He studied engineering at Venezuela's national military academy, and though he was never a top-notch student he focused on his work and graduated eighth in his class in 1975. Chávez was immediately popular with his fellow soldiers, and he rose through the military's officer ranks. He was elevated to colonel, heading an elite unit of paratroopers.

Along the way he noticed that the Venezuelan military, like many of the country's other institutions, was riddled with corruption. Chávez spent his spare time reading about his country's history, and he flirted with the Marxist ideas that had made inroads in Nicaragua and other Latin American countries, often nurtured by progressive religious figures. But his real heroes were the nationalist military leaders who had thrown off Spanish rule in the nineteenth century—above all Simón Bolivar, the father of Venezuelan independence and a figure of mythical dimensions, sometimes known as the George Washington of South America. With his natural charisma, Chávez drew other soldiers to his ideas. Starting with small cells, he built a network of supporters within the Venezuelan military. It was called MBR 200, the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement.

A defining event in Chávez's military career came in 1989, after falling oil prices had devastated the Venezuelan economy and led President Carlos Andrés Pérez to institute a series of austerity measures. Riots erupted in the capital city of Caracas after an announcement that bus fares would be increased, and the army was sent into the streets to quell the protests. Chávez was part of the group deployed, and he was angered by orders to shoot at Venezuelan citizens who he felt had legitimate grievances. The experience was a primary motivation for the military coup he organized against the Pérez government three years later.

Radio Announcement became Popular Slogan

The 1992 Chávez coup was quickly put down, but his co-conspirators launched attacks on government installations around the country. In hopes of preventing further bloodshed, the government allowed Chávez a 45-second television address so that he could tell others to lay down their arms. It was a mistake on the government's part, for Chávez made the most of the time he had available, announcing to his fellow Venezuelans that his movement had for now—"por ahora"—been unsuccessful in achieving its goal. Within a few days, "por ahora" graffiti appeared around Caracas, and Chávez had emerged as the standard-bearer for Venezuela's masses of hillside slum dwellers.

Chávez was jailed but was given the comparatively mild charge of rebellion and spent only two years in prison, despite the fact that his associates mounted a second coup attempt nine months after the first. After he was pardoned by president Rafael Caldera and given an honorable discharge from the military, Chávez launched a bid to win power by peaceful means. He and a group of leftist politicians formed a new party called the Fifth Republic Movement, which fielded Chávez as its presidential candidate. On December 6, 1998, he was elected to the Venezuelan presidency, his first political office, with 56 percent of the vote.

Chávez moved quickly on both political and public relations fronts to consolidate his power. He pushed through a new constitution that replaced Venezuela's American-style bicameral legislature with a single National Assembly, and provided for a six-year presidential term that could be extended by re-election. In 2000 Chávez scheduled a special election that would install him for the new six-year term. Running on an anti-corruption platform, he was elected with 60 percent of the vote, Venezuela's largest mandate in several decades.

Like Cuban leader Fidel Castro, with whom he cultivated closer ties, Chávez had the habit of giving lengthy speeches to his people, speeches that combined policy statements and general pep talks. Sprinkled with quotations from Jesus Christ and Simón Bolivar, Chávez's addresses took the form of a television program, Alo, Presidente. Chávez might touch on any topic from baseball to nutrition to the United States, which Chávez blamed for the problems of South America's poor. As the United States sought to expand hemispheric commerce through free-trade agreements, Chávez emerged as a major opponent of globalization and a general thorn in the side of the new U.S. administration of President George W. Bush.

Opponents Staged Coup

Chávez was also despised by Venezuela's upper classes, partly out of prejudice against his modest origins and partly over substantive policy disagreements. After Chávez fired the managers of Venezuela's national oil company in 2002, a group of business executives with supporters in the Venezuela army and in large labor unions launched a coup against the Chávez government on April 12. Groups of antiand pro-Chávez demonstrators clashed in front of the presidential palace, and Chávez was taken away by the coup plotters. When the insurgents announced that they were dissolving the constitution, however, the tide turned in Chávez's favor; a palace guard contingent that had remained loyal to him joined with a large crowd of demonstrators, and the coup collapsed after 50 hours. The United States, which had hailed the change of government, was forced to backtrack, and Chávez blamed Americans—accurately, according to many foreign press reports—for aiding the insurrection.

Chávez's opponents did not give up. In 2004 they gathered signatures for a recall election that, if successful, would have removed him from power. The recall went forward after judicial wrangling over the legitimacy of some of the signatures. But by this time the United States had invaded Iraq and oil prices were headed skyward. Average household income in Venezuela rose 30 percent in 2004, and Chávez began to spend lavishly on new schools and public works projects. The success of Chávez's antipoverty initiatives has been a matter of debate, but loans for small businesses and rural cooperatives, a centerpiece of Chávez's economic strategy, were abundant. Top religious leaders such as Venezuelan Cardinal Ignacio Velasco had backed the coup against Chávez and opposed him, but Chavez had support among the religious rank-and-file, and he often accused Catholic church leaders of not following Christ's path. Chávez handily beat back the August 15 recall with just under 60 percent of the vote.

Victory emboldened Chávez in various ways. Dissent within the Venezuelan armed forces was now dealt with harshly, and the 3.2 million Venezuelans who had signed recall petitions found themselves discriminated against. Chávez missed no opportunity to criticize the United States. He brought charges against an election-monitoring group, Sumate, that he claimed was a front for U.S. operatives, and he expelled U.S. missionaries after charging them with spying. Chávez claimed that Venezuelan spies had uncovered U.S. plans to invade the country, and he stockpiled arms in anticipation of such an eventuality. In 2005, a U.S. religious evangelist played into Chávez's hands by publicly advocating Chávez's assassination.

Chávez skillfully made use of such events, gaining supporters at home as well as in the United States, where he offered aid in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and directed Venezuela's state oil company, which did business in the United States under the Citgo name, to provide low-cost heating oil to residents of U.S. cities. Visiting the United States in 2005, Chávez greeted supporters in the New York borough of the Bronx and met for an interview with Newsweek, telling the magazine that "the media is trying to make the American people see me as an enemy." Questioned about his assertion that the United States was a terrorist state, Chávez told the magazine, "What I said is that this U.S. administration—the current [George W. Bush] government—is a terrorist administration, not all U.S. governments."

Despite clashes between Venezuela and the United States (Chávez also engaged in war of words with Mexican president Vicente Fox), Venezuela continued to supply between 8 and 15 percent of U.S. energy needs, and U.S. oil purchases financed the social programs that cemented Chávez's hold on power. Chávez-style populism seemed to be spreading in South America as Bolivians elected a socialist, Evo Morales, to the presidency. New tensions flared in early 2006 when Chávez expelled a U.S. naval attaché from Venezuela, charging him with spying. But Chávez seemed likely to win a second term in his re-election bid that year.


Contemporary Hispanic Biography, vol. 1, Gale, 2002.

Gott, Richard, and Georges Bartoli, Hugo Chávez: The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela, Verso, 2005.


Christian Science Monitor, May 20, 2005; February 6, 2006.

Independent (London, England), March 20, 2004.

New Statesman, October 10, 2005.

Newsweek, October 3, 2005; December 19, 2005.

New York Review of Books, October 6, 2005; October 20, 2005.

Smithsonian, January 2006.

Sojourners, May 2004.


"Profile: Hugo Chavez," BBC News, (February 11, 2006).