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Chavez: an icon of controversy

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Chavez: an icon of controversy


Hugo Chavez, an icon of the people, was born in 1954, the second son of humble village schoolteachers. After studying at the military academy in Caracas, he went to Simon Bolivar University.

But in 1992, at the head of the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement he had created, he tried to overthrow President Carlos Perez. This failure cost him two years in prison.

On his way to jail, he said it was time to reflect, that the country would see better days, and that he was bowing out until later.

To popular acclaim when he was released, he got to work founding his Fifth Republic Movement a left-wing, Socialist political party, in 1997, to bolster his bid for the presidency the following year.

He presented himself as the scourge of the oligarchs and hero of the poor, ready to end the corruption that was eating away at Venezuela. He won comfortably. He vowed to serve ideals beyond what he called the country’s ‘moribund constitution’, which dated from 1961.

With overwhelming approval in a referendum in 1999, he created a constitutional assembly to rewrite the national charter.

Chavez was re-elected in 2000 with nearly 60% of the vote, but the economy would take a turn for the worse when crude oil prices plummeted after the September 11 attacks on the US by Islamist militants.

In April 2002, violent mass protests involving pro- and anti-Chavez supporters, the police and the army brought a score of deaths and a military-backed plot to depose Chavez. A wealthy business-leader declared himself president of an interim government but Chavez was back in power within a couple of days.

“I’m still the king!” he said.

But he gave senior state oil officials back their jobs, to soften conservative opposition. At the head of one of the world’s top ten oil nations, Chavez rose to become an international actor.

Oil also paid for vast social programmes, which helped educate, house, feed and provide health care. At the same time, critics frowned on Chavez’s high-spending, labelling him an authoritarian populist.

Opponents said he turned Venezuela from a democracy into a dictatorship, further pointing to other controversial world leaders, whom Chavez befriended – such as Ahmadinejad, Gaddafi, Castro. They shared strong anti-US, anti-capitalist and anti-semitic feelings. Western rights groups both praised Chavez for his record and accused him of abuses such as political discrimination and limiting freedom of expression and association.

He forged more political, economic and military alliances with Latin American countries, spreading Venezuela’s oil wealth around in the form of financial and medical aid. In 2009, Chavez created a regional development lender called Bank of the South. This was part of moves to try to keep global institutions such as the IMF at arm’s length.

His swaggering ways irritated some people in high circles, even to the point where the king of Spain lost his cool and suggest he shut up, at a summit in 2007.

Chavez would swing between euphoria and occasional depression. No one could deny that Chavez was unpredictable.

This, along with serial privatisations and oil revenue fluctuations brought warnings about risks in investing in Venezuela.

Chavez was also secretive – when he got cancer treatment in Cuba, giving out few details. He wouldn’t be faulted for weak image – not after 14 years in power. He wasn’t obliged to stop, since he had got the constitution’s two-term limit removed in 2009.

When he won again in 2012, on 7 October, nearly half the country had voted for the rival candidate.

Two months later, and one month before his fourth term in office was supposed to begin, Chavez announced his cancer was back, and he would need to go to Cuba for more care.

He named who he chose to replace him, in case he didn’t come back: “In that case, which would mean calling a fresh election, as the constitution demands, I ask you to elect Nicolas Maduro as president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”

That was Chavez’s greatest concern: that the Bolivarian Revolution survive after he’d gone. He asked that his government, his party and the army back Maduro as his successor.

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