A deeply divided Venezuela is mourning its late leader and preparing to pick a new president to replace him.
Venezuelan officials called for peace and unity after President Hugo Chavez’s death on Tuesday, emphasizing in state television broadcasts that all branches of the government and the military were standing together.
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.
Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías (28 July 1954 – 5 March 2013) was the President of Venezuela, having held that position from 1999 until his death in 2013. He was formerly the leader of the Fifth Republic Movement political party from its foundation in 1997 until 2007, when he became the leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Following his own political ideology of Bolivarianism and "socialism of the 21st century", he focused on implementing socialist reforms in the country as a part of a social project known as the Bolivarian Revolution, which has seen the implementation of a new constitution, participatory democratic councils, the nationalization of several key industries, increased government funding of health care and education, and significant reductions in poverty, according to government figures.
Maduro said Chavez died at the military hospital in Caracas, where he had been treated for complications arising from his long struggle with cancer.
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.
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.
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."
THE RISE OF A REBEL
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.
Chavez supporters, critics react
Word of Chavez’s death drew swift expressions of sorrow and solidarity from regional allies.
Ecuador and Cuba bothannounced three days of national mourning to honor Chavez.
"The national government expresses its solidarity in light of this irreparable loss that puts the Venezuelan people and all the region in mourning and at the same time sends its heartfelt condolences to the family of the late champion of Latin America,"Ecuador’sforeign ministry said in a statement.