Chavez fought 'devil' to uplift poor, turn a cult figure

He used the oil revenues to run social welfare schemes that benefitted millions

Chavez fought 'devil' to uplift poor, turn a cult figure

Hugo Chavez, who died on Tuesday at 58, rose from poverty in a dirt-floor adobe house to unrivalled influence in Venezuela as its president, consolidating power and wielding the country’s oil reserves as a tool for his Socialist-inspired change.

With a televangelist’s gift for oratory, Chavez led a nationalist movement that lashed out at the US government, moneyed Venezuelans and his own disaffected followers, whom he often branded as traitors.

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 Europeanised 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 US 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 US ambassadors, as he had done. He asserted greater state control over Venezuela’s economy by nationalising dozens of foreign-owned assets, including oil projects controlled by Exxon Mobil and other large US corporations.

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 subsidised food. These and other social welfare programmes 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 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.

Supportive mentor

No mentor was more supportive than Castro, who well understood how important Venezuela’s subsidised 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 received tacit support from the Bush administration, and Chavez’s swift return to power signalled 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 nationalisations 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.

All the while, Chavez rewrote the rule book on using the media to enhance his power. With ‘Alo Presidente’ (Hello, President), his Sunday television programme, 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 sceptical of social media, he came to embrace Twitter, attracting millions of followers. 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.

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.

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.”

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