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Hugo Chavez: populist, revolutionary, autocrat?

© AFP file photo

Text by Rachel HOLMAN

Latest update : 2013-03-06

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has died aged 58 after more than a year-long battle with cancer. Both adored and despised, Chavez left an indelible mark on Venezuela’s political scene over the course of his eventful career.

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s high-profile and controversial president for almost a decade and a half, died on Tuesday after a 19-month-long battle with cancer. He was 58 years old. One of the world’s most polarising figures, Chavez changed the face of Venezuelan politics over the course of his more than 30-year career.

Seen as both a champion of the poor and an uncompromising autocrat, Chavez governed Venezuela for 14 years as the head of his own “Bolivarian Revolution”. A populist president, Chavez introduced a series of reforms during his time as president aimed at improving life for the country’s poor. His anti-American rhetoric and close ties to Cuba’s communist government also drew the ire of the United States, which viewed Chavez with a wary eye.

From small-town boy to ‘Chavismo’

Chavez was born on July 28, 1954, in the tiny town of Sabeneta, located in Venezuela’s western Barinas state, to humble beginnings. The son of schoolteachers, Chavez was the second-oldest of six sons. Partly raised by his grandmother, he grew up an avid baseball lover who dreamed of playing in the major leagues.

In his early days

In 1975, Chavez enrolled in a military academy as a cadet. As he steadily worked his way up the ranks, the young man delved into the writings of Simon Bolivar, a 19th century political and military leader who played a key role in securing Latin America’s independence from Spain. Bolivar’s works deeply resonated with Chavez, sowing the first seeds of what would later become his political identity.

In his early days

Over the course of his military career, Chavez’s political views matured as his personal ambition grew. Fed up with a leadership he viewed as ineffectual and corrupt, Chavez, then a lieutenant-corporal, conspired with his fellow officers to overthrow the government. In 1992, he staged a coup, which ended in utter failure. Chavez was condemned to prison, where he served two years before he was pardoned by the president and released.

Chavez’s stint behind bars did little to diminish his hunger for political change, and he quickly emerged on the political scene as an opposition force to be reckoned with. Highly critical of the government, Chavez cultivated a carefully constructed image as an anti-establishment figure, wooing support from the country’s disenchanted poor and middle-class. As his popularity grew, Chavez's particular brand of politics was dubbed “Chavismo”.

A populist president

In 1998, Chavez won the country’s presidential election by a landslide. Despite the fact Chavez’s economic policy was, at the time, fairly moderate, his populist image and fierce anti-elite rhetoric drew grumblings of discontent from the country’s upper classes.

On April 12, 2002, Chavez was briefly forced from power by a military-backed coup. Detained by dissident armed forces, Chavez was whisked out of the capital Caracas while a transitional government led by businessman Pedro Carmona seized power. The new leadership moved quickly to dissolve Congress and the country’s Supreme Court, but Carmona’s place at the helm of the country was short-lived. Chavez returned to power on April 14, a mere 48 hours after he was ousted.

A self-styled Bolivarian revolutionary

The entire crisis was caught on video by Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain, who had been following the Venezuelan president for a biographical documentary they wanted to make. The dramatic footage was featured a year later in their film, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”.

A self-styled Bolivarian revolutionary

Once back in the presidency, Chavez faced further attempts to loosen his grip on power, including an oil strike and a 2004 recall vote. Chavez persevered, and even won re-election in 2006. In the meantime, he became more radical in his politics, nationalising huge chunks of the economy and tightening his reins on the media. He also moved to consolidate power, winning a referendum that abolished presidential term limits, thus allowing him to stand for re-election a fourth consecutive time.

Battle with cancer

Part of Chavez’s success lay in his charisma. An adept political strategist and communicator, Chavez was able to garner popular support through his ability to inspire crowds with his impassioned speeches. His blunt, albeit at times bizarre and long-winded manner of speaking even won him a few celebrity supporters, such as American actors Sean Penn and Danny Glover.

Chavez’s singular personality was perhaps best exemplified by his TV show, “Aló Presidente”. Entirely unscripted and broadcast live, the programme sometimes played out like a presidential reality show. In one episode, the camera followed Chavez as he met with supporters at an oil plant, before sitting down and embarking on a lengthy monologue. In another, Chavez was filmed riding a helicopter to visit an artificial insemination centre for livestock, where he spoke with employees about the work they were doing. Depending on how much Chavez had to say about a given subject, a show could last for hours on end.

His discourse, however, was not generally appreciated by the United States, whom Chavez blamed for orchestrating the coup against him. A symbol of anti-American sentiment in South America, the Venezuelan leader memorably called then-US president George Bush “the devil” during a 2006 speech before the United Nations, saying the room still reeked of sulfur.

For all his political savvy, enthusiasm for Chavez waned. After more than a decade in office, the man who was once the face of outsider politics had become the establishment. Although he won re-election in 2012 with a solid 54 percent of the vote, the outcome paled in comparison with his previous victories.

Chavez’s win, however, was further tempered by his ongoing battle with cancer. Diagnosed in June 2011, the Venezuelan president had been shuffling between the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas and doctors’ offices in Cuba for over a year.

Nearly a month before he was due to be sworn in on January 10 for another six-year term, Chavez appointed his vice president, Nicolas Maduro, as his political successor. Days later, he returned to Cuba for what was his fourth cancer surgery in 18 months. While recovering, Chavez suffered post-operation complications, prompting the country’s opposition to demand the government reveal “the whole truth” about the president’s health.

Date created : 2013-02-28

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