Hugo Chavez, adored by many as a hero, 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, then his career began as a soldier. 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 he was simply bowing out until later.
To popular acclaim after his release, in 1998 at the head of his new Socialist political party the Fifth Republic Movement, he ran for president and won comfortably. With overwhelming approval in a referendum in 1999, he had the 1961 constitution rewritten.
He was heartily re-elected in 2000, but as the economy suffered when oil prices plummeted the following year, Chavez now experienced a blip of unpopularity.
Opponents would continue to accuse him of running Venezuela as a dictatorship, further pointing to his controversial international friends such as Ahmadinejad, Gaddafi and Castro. Western rights groups both praised Chavez for his social programmes and accused him of abuses such as political discrimination and limiting freedom of expression.
When he won the presidency again last year, saying little about his cancer, nearly half the country had voted for the rival candidate. Then Chavez announced he needed more health treatment in Cuba. He left right hand man Nicolas Maduro as his surrogate, asking his government, his party and the army to back him – in case he didn’t come back – at the head of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, to perpetuate his anti-capitalist ideology.
In particular, our Washington correspondent Stefan Grobe asked Diana Villiers Negroponte, a political analyst who focuses on Latin America, what impact the passing of Hugo Chavez will have on US-Venezuela relations.
Diana Villiers Negroponte: “Hugo Chavez was not a friend of the United States, he enjoyed playing us, he enjoyed treating us as an imperial power, but when your competitor goes down, you recognize that he was an extraordinary man. For us it means that the election campaign, which the constitution now requires, must be fair. The opposition and other candidates vying for the presidency should be able to compete in this campaign on an even basis, which means that each party has its appropriate time on the media and that the governing party does not monopolise media time, leaving the opposition fragments. So, a fair campaign is what the United States will ask for.”
Stefan Grobe, euronews: “Despite the country’s oil reserves many Venezuelans live in shanty towns, unemployment is rife and around 60 percent of the population are described as poor.”
Negroponte: “The country today is going through a very serious economic crisis. There are shortages of everything on the shelves of stores: little rice, little milk, little coffee. Medecines are in shortage. Spare parts for machinery, electronics, furniture – it’s all in short supply. So Venezuelans know there is a serious problem that they have to confront and that Chavez’s successor will have to remedy. And that’s going to be very difficult, because for the last few years, Chavez has just used the benefits of the oil company, the national oil company PDVSA as a convenient money bag to distribute favours to his supporters. That time has run out and now the Venezuelan people have to pay and face the piper.”
euronews: “Chavistas claim that his nationalisation of the oil sector has helped the poor to benefit from the trickle down from export revenues.”
Negroponte: “A populist leader needs some unifying theme around which his followers can gather. Anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism was convenient to them. Whether the successor will continue that is not certain, principally because Venezuelan oil is sold to US refineries. Venezuela needs, believe it or not, food that it purchases from the United States. So, strong relations with US investors and US companies is essential for Venezuela to get out of its economic crisis. We can deal with a certain amount of rhetoric, but at one time you have got to be realistic. And I would argue that, post-Chavez, a dose of realism would do well for Venezuela.”