President of Venezuela;
Born: July 28, 1954; Died: March 5, 2013.
Hugo Chavez, who has died aged 58, was the charismatic leader who transformed the political life of Venezuela and became a symbol of the mass resistance movements that changed the face of Latin America.
Foreign commentators, who often found his colourful language and his open-ended Sunday morning television monologues faintly absurd, never understood his relationship with Venezuela's poor and working people. He represented a dramatic break with a political system in which two major parties controlled the state through patronage and corruption. For the first time the occupant of the presidential palace looked and sounded like them.
Chavez first entered the political stage on February 4 1992, as a lieutenant-colonel in the Parachute Regiment, when he led a short-lived coup against the government. He was arrested within 24 hours, but allowed a minute of television time when he memorably announced that the revolution was over "por ahora" (for the moment). Chavez identified his action with the Caracazo of February 1989, an explosion of public rage against devastating economic measures imposed by the IMF. The rising was repressed within three days, at a cost of an estimated 3000 lives.
Chavez did not participate in the repression, but he had already expressed his growing unease at the use of the armed forces to crush dissent. In his view, the role of the army was to defend the nation, including its most disadvantaged citizens.
Chavez himself came from extremely modest origins in Barinas, the wetland area along the Colombian border called The Llanos. His parents were poorly-paid schoolteachers. Even given some exaggeration in the re-telling, his story was one that the vast majority of Venezuelans could recognize.
In 1971 he entered the Military Academy in Caracas – though it was his baseball skills rather than his academic attainments that won him his place. The Venezuelan army did allow for the promotion of officers from poor backgrounds – unlike the rigidly class-based armed forces of neighbouring Colombia. And it was Chavez's good fortune that the academy had just implemented a new liberal education programme that emphasized debate and an understanding of the history of the nation.
At the Academy he formed a small radical group influenced by the ideas of Douglas Bravo, leader of the guerrilla movement, who advocated building a movement that embraced peasants, workers, and radical officers – what he called a "civic-military alliance", a concept that Chavez made his own. The 1992 coup was led by that group of young officers, though Bravo was critical of Chavez for his failure to mobilize the civic movement in its support.
By 1998, Chavez had decided to stand in the presidential elections on a programme of political reform, an end to the corruption endemic in the state, and the nationalisation of Venezuela's key resource – oil. The 1999 constitution, drafted by a delegate assembly and approved by referendum, fulfilled his promise to establish a new Bolivarian Republic.
The right, seeing its privileges under threat and appalled by Chavez's voluble hostility to the United States, began to use its economic and media power to undermine him. In April 2002, an attempted coup that began with Chavez's arrest was foiled by a mass mobilisation of Venezuela's majority demanding that he be returned.
In December of that year, the executives of the oil corporation launched a lockout, paralysing the industry in a renewed attempt to bring Chavez down. Once again the mass movement entered the scene, and the wheels of industry kept turning. This dispelled any lingering doubt about the support that Chavez enjoyed.
In the following year, 2003, he set up the social programmes called the Missions, bringing health provision to the poorest areas, extending education to every Venezuelan citizen; the programmes were financed from oil profits, and overseen by the grass-roots organisations.
Returned to the presidency with an increased majority in 2006, Chavez launched a new mass party, the United Socialist Party (PSUV), controlled by the state. Six million joined in a matter of weeks. But if it was intended to embody the "21st century socialism" that Chavez had announced the previous year at the World Social Forum, it also exposed its contradictions. The party, modelled on its Cuban counterpart, was controlled from above, its leadership nominated by Chavez himself. And its creation veiled the corruption associated with the emergence of a new increasingly powerful bureaucracy.
The right-wing opposition became increasingly aggressive, as Chavez challenged Washington, gave vocal support to radical governments in Bolivia and Ecuador, and worked to strengthen the regional alliances that could resist neo-liberalism. Yet Chavez had not encroached on private property or the personal wealth of Venezuela's bourgeoisie.
In October 2012, Chavez won his third presidential election, with a 55% majority. He immediately left for Havana for further treatment on an unspecified cancer. Later, Chavez nominated his vice-president Nicolas Maduro as his successor, probably to pre-empt any internal power struggles after his death and to ensure the continuity of the Chavista project.
The constitution now requires new elections within 30 days. In the short term Chavez's nominee will almost certainly win. But they will not have Chavez's charisma, nor enjoy the unquestioning confidence that Venezuela's exploited majority placed in the man who spoke their language and brought real change to their lives.
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