This Article is From Mar 06, 2013

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's polarizing leader, dies at 58

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's polarizing leader, dies at 58
Caracas, Venezuela: Hugo Chavez, who rose from poverty in a dirt-floor adobe house to unrivaled influence in Venezuela as its president, consolidating power and wielding the country's oil reserves as a tool for his Socialist-inspired change, died on Tuesday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said. He was 58.

Maduro said Chavez died at the military hospital in Caracas, where he had been treated for complications arising from his long struggle with cancer.

With a televangelist's gift for oratory, Chavez led a nationalist movement that lashed out at the U.S. government, moneyed Venezuelans and his own disaffected followers, whom he often branded as traitors. (Read: Fate of Hugo Chavez's movement in Venezuela uncertain after death)

He was a dreamer with a common touch and enormous ambition. He maintained an almost visceral connection with the poor, tapping into their resentments, while strutting like the strongman in a caudillo novel. His followers called him Comandante.

But he was not a stock figure. He grew up a have-not in an oil-rich country that prized ostentatious consumption. He was a man of mixed ancestry - African, indigenous and Spanish - who despised a power structure dominated by Europeanized elites. As a soldier he hated hunting down guerrillas but had no qualms about using weapons to seize power, as he and a group of military co-conspirators tried but failed to do in 1992. Even so, he rose to power in democratic elections, in 1998.

In office, he upended the political order at home and used oil revenues to finance client states in Latin America, notably Bolivia and Nicaragua. Inspired by Simon Bolivar, the mercurial Venezuelan aristocrat who led South America's 19th-century wars of independence, Chavez sought to unite the region and erode Washington's influence.

"The hegemonic pretensions of the American empire are placing at risk the very survival of the human species," he said in a 2006 speech at the United Nations. In the same speech he called President George W. Bush "the devil."

For years, he succeeded in curbing U.S. influence. He breathed life into Cuba, the hemisphere's only Communist nation, with economic assistance; its revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, was not only an ally but also an inspiration. Chavez forged a Bolivarian alliance with some of Latin America's energy-exporting nations, like Ecuador and Bolivia, and applauded when they expelled U.S. ambassadors, as he had done. He asserted greater state control over Venezuela's economy by nationalizing dozens of foreign-owned assets, including oil projects controlled by Exxon Mobil and other large U.S. corporations. (Read: Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, a father-son bond until death)

Though he met opposition at home, he enjoyed broad support, in part by going into the slums to establish health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors and state-run stores selling subsidized food. These and other social welfare programs could be corrupt and inefficient, but they made the poor feel included in a society that had long ignored them.

At the same time, he was determined to hold onto and enhance his power. He grew obsessed with changing Venezuela's laws and regulations to ensure that he could be re-elected indefinitely and become, indeed, a caudillo, able to rule by decree at times. He celebrated his past as a military officer and stacked his government with generals, colonels and majors, drawing inspiration from the leftist military officers who ruled Peru and Panama in the 1970s.

A bizarre governing apparatus subject to his whims coalesced around him. State television cameras recorded nearly every public appearance, many of them to make surprise, unscripted announcements, often in his military uniform and paratrooper's red beret. He might rail against Venezuela's high consumption of Scotch whisky - he did not drink alcohol, his aides said - or its high demand for breast augmentation surgery. He once stunned citizens by decreeing a new time zone for the nation, a half-hour behind its previous one. Fawning Cabinet ministers sat through his televised lectures as he browbeat them over unfulfilled objectives.

Dr. Edmundo Chirinos, a psychiatrist who got to know Chavez as a patient, described him in a profile in The New Yorker in 2001 as "a hyperkinetic and imprudent man, unpunctual, someone who overreacts to criticism, harbors grudges, is politically astute and manipulative, and possesses tremendous stamina, never sleeping more than two or three hours a night."

Chavez would delight in angering his critics in rich countries. He heaped praise, for instance, on Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan terrorist better known as Carlos the Jackal, with whom he corresponded.

"I defend him," Chavez said of his friend, who was jailed in France on charges of murdering two French police agents and a Lebanese informer in Paris in 1975. "I don't care what they say tomorrow in Europe."

No mentor was more supportive than Castro, who well understood how important Venezuela's subsidized oil shipments were to Cuba's fragile economy. An ally from the start of Chavez's presidency in 1999, he offered help in one of Chavez's most difficult moments, a coup d'etat that removed him from office for 48 hours in April 2002. Castro telephoned Venezuela's top military officials, pressing them to assist in returning Chavez to office.


The collapse of the coup, which is thought to have received tacit support from the Bush administration, and Chavez's swift return to power signaled a shift in his presidency. Seemingly chastened, Chavez promised compromise and harmony in the future. But instead of reconciliation, his response was retaliation.

He began describing his critics as "golpistas," or putschists, while recasting his own failed 1992 coup as a patriotic uprising. He purged opponents from the national oil company, expropriated the land of others and imprisoned retired military officials who had dared to stand against him. The country's political debate became increasingly poisonous, and it took its toll on the country.

Private investors, unhinged over Chavez's nationalizations and expropriation threats, halted projects. Hundreds of thousands of scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs and others in the middle class left Venezuela, even as large numbers of immigrants from Haiti, China and Lebanon put down stakes here. (Read- Hugo Chavez a 'great leader and great friend': China)

The homicide rate soared under his rule, turning Caracas into one of the world's most dangerous cities. Armed gangs lorded over prisons, as they did in previous governments, challenging the state's authority. Simple tasks, like transferring the title of a car, remained nightmarish odysseys eased only by paying bribes to churlish bureaucrats.

Other branches of government often bent to his will. He fired about 19,000 employees of Petroleos de Venezuela, the national oil company, in response to a strike in 2002 and 2003. In 2004, he stripped the Supreme Court of its autonomy, undermining judicial independence. Opponents said they were often discriminated against in business dealings with the government.And in legislative elections  in 2010, his supporters preserved a majority in the National Assembly by gerrymandering.

All the while, Chavez rewrote the rule book on using the media to enhance his power. With "Alo Presidente" ("Hello, President"), his Sunday television program, he would speak to viewers in his booming voice for hours on end. His government ordered privately controlled television stations to broadcast his speeches. While initially skeptical of social media, he came to embrace Twitter, attracting millions of followers.

He also basked in the comforts allowed him as head of state in a nation with some of the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East. He traveled in a luxurious Airbus A319, complete with a private lounge. In one jaunt around Venezuela in 2007 with the actor Sean Penn, he roamed the plane, regaling foreign journalists on board with tales from his days as a soldier and claiming that U.S. intelligence officials were tracking his movements by satellite.

That outing was a rare glimpse of a man - twice married and the father of four - who guarded his privacy. Most times his government would not even say which official residence he might be sleeping in, although his aides did reveal that he smoked cigarettes in private and enjoyed coffee; at one point early in his presidency, he consumed as many as 26 cups of espresso a day.

Chavez understood the value of humor in his speeches, and he used it freely. But he was also a master of the political insult. "Apatrida" (stateless one) and "escualido" (squalid person) - just two of the disparaging terms he used for his opponents - became part of the Venezuelan lexicon. Another insult was used against those he perceived as mimicking North American cultural mores. "Pitiyanqui," he called them, roughly translated as "little Yankee."


Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born on July 28, 1954, the second of six sons of primary school teachers who lived in an adobe house in Sabaneta, a town in the western Venezuelan state of Barinas, a region known for its cattle estates. His impoverished parents sent him and his older brother, Adan, to live with their grandmother. Chavez played baseball as a boy before enrolling in Venezuela's military academy at 17.

After graduating, he joined a counterinsurgency unit roaming the state of Anzoategui in eastern Venezuela, assigned to subdue a Maoist rebel group called Red Flag. There, in the late 1970s and early '80s, Chavez, then a junior communications officer, began chafing at the brutal treatment of guerrillas and questioning the inequality in Venezuelan society that Red Flag had hoped to eliminate.

Soon he helped create a clandestine cell of like-minded young officers within the army, drawing on the guidance of Douglas Bravo, a leftist guerrilla leader who advocated using the nation's petroleum reserves as a tool for radical change. They called their group the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement.

Reading voraciously on Venezuelan history and global politics, Chavez began to articulate a national ideology, much as Castro had done in Cuba. One of his biographers, Cristina Marcano, said Chavez had spoken of being influenced by "The Green Book," the three-volume political tract by Moammar Gadhafi of Libya.

Once in power, Chavez established ties with Gadhafi and other Middle Eastern leaders who similarly used oil resources to buttress nationalist governments.

Those who knew Chavez well, before he emerged from obscurity during the failed 1992 coup attempt, saw another side to his intellectual development.

Herma Marksman, a history professor who was Chavez's mistress from 1984 to 1993, said he loved to have her read aloud to him from books while he drove a car aimlessly through the streets of Caracas. "He would hang on every word, especially if it was fiction by Garcia Marquez," Marksman said in a 2006 interview, referring to the Nobel-prize winning Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Throughout the 1980s, Chavez and his fellow conspirators waited for the right moment to try to seize power. Venezuelans were becoming increasingly restive over a political system permeated with corruption and dominated by two parties - Copei, a Christian democratic group, and Democratic Action. A decline in oil prices in the 1980s, along with years of fiscal mismanagement, left Venezuela perpetually on the edge of crisis. In 1989, hundreds died in anti-government riots.


By February 1992, Chavez and his army associates decided it was time to act. Their rebellion gained tenuous control over several important cities, including Maracaibo and Valencia, but Chavez, commanding five army units, failed to capture Caracas, the capital. President Carlos Andres Perez eluded capture. Chavez, aware that the coup had failed, surrendered.

But before he surrendered, he shrewdly struck a deal that lay the groundwork for his rise later in the decade: He persuaded officials to allow him to appear briefly on national television. Slim in his officer's uniform and wearing a beret, he looked into the camera and addressed his supporters.

"Comrades, unfortunately for now the objectives we set for ourselves have not been possible to achieve," he said, adding that "new possibilities will arise again." Two words, "por ahora," meaning "for now," would remain with Venezuelans.

He and other rebellious officers were court-martialed, and Chavez was sent to prison. But in two years he was freed by President Rafael Caldera in fulfillment of an election pledge. After leaving prison, Chavez divorced his wife, Nancy Colmenares. He is survived by their three children, Rosa Virginia, Maria Gabriela and Hugo Rafael; and another daughter, Rosines, from his second marriage, to Marisabel Rodriguez, who left him in 2002.

After his release, Chavez went on a 100-day tour of Venezuela, weaving together a broad coalition of support. After founding a political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, he ran for president in 1998 at a time of intense dissatisfaction with Venezuela's political elite. He easily defeated his rivals, Henrique Salas Romer, a Yale-educated economist, and Irene Saez, a former Miss Universe.

At the time of his rise, Chavez was able to rally support for a new constitution. But his attempts to consolidate power fully were eventually blocked as opposition to his rule persisted.

Still, he created what few thought possible in a market economy at the dawn of the 21st century: a governing structure revolving around a single willful, mercurial personality - a man who seemed to believe in his own myth. Between trips to Cuba for cancer treatment, that force of personality helped him to win a re-election campaign in October 2012. In a reference to the endless plains of his birthplace, he thanked the "spirits of the savanna" for helping him to endure, as if suggesting that only the forces of nature could subdue him.

Even a setback would embolden him. After he unexpectedly lost a referendum on a constitutional overhaul in 2007, he set about reminding citizens that his efforts to install a new order were not over. On billboards across Caracas appeared the words "por ahora."

© 2013, The New York Times News Service