Hugo Chavez is the 53rd president of Venezuela, and perhaps one of the most controversial not only for his politics, but also for his incendiary, at times bawdy, speaking style. Chavez, the child of schoolteachers, was born in Sabaneta, Venezuela on 28 July 1954. He is the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, named for his idol Simón Bolívar. Hugo Chavez also founded the Fifth Republic Movement, a leftist organization that promoted his own form of democratic socialism, which he called “21st Century Socialism.”
Hugo Chavez joined the military and graduated with an engineering degree from the Military Academy of Venezuela in 1975. His 17 year career with the army included stints as a paratrooper and as a teacher at the academy. It was there that he developed the strong lecturing style for which he is well known. During his lectures, Chavez began to establish his harsh criticism of the Venezuelan government and societal structures.
Hugo Chavez began graduate studies in political science at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, but he did not earn a degree. During the early years of his political education, Chavez was influenced by Juan Velasco Alvarado, president of Peru, and an assortment of communist and socialist leaders and icons, including Fidel Castro.
By 1992, Hugo Chavez had amassed a significant following within the military. In February of that year, he organized and led a military coup d’état against the government, which was led by President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chavez had hoped to capitalize on the current dissatisfaction with poor economic conditions, as well as on the public outrage over the bloody rioting and mass killings of rioters during what was called “El Caracazo” in 1989. A combination of factors led to the demise of the coup, and Chavez was ultimately jailed. He had, however, planted a seed during a public press conference, which later grew to wide public support.
Within a year, President Pérez was impeached, and by 1994, Hugo Chavez was pardoned. He began publicly campaigning for the presidency on the platform of Bolivarianism. His core beliefs included anti-imperialism, Venezuelan sovereignty, a populist democracy that included mass participation in government, economic self-sufficiency and strong nationalism. He also believed that the country’s revenues from oil should be distributed equally throughout the citizenry. One of his biggest concerns was to combat the corrupt kleptocracy that had dominated Venezuela.
In 1998, Chavez won the election with 56% of the vote. He immediately began to enact his social welfare and justice programs and took action to improve Venezuela’s flagging economy. Unfortunately, the first few years of his presidency were marked by economic recession due to low oil prices and high international interest rates.
Although many of Chavez' programs seemed well-intentioned, they were not always successful. “Plan Bolivar 2000” used the military to implement social programs to combat poverty and promote road and housing construction. It failed due to widespread military corruption. Some of Chavez' programs have been successful, as statistics show that both poverty and infant mortality are down, state healthcare is available to many more than before, and the literacy rate is up, among many other improvements.
Despite Chavez’ promotion of limited government and democracy with separation of powers, he has demonstrated that he is willing to influence laws that support his goals. At his promptings, in 1999, a new constitution was drafted, as well as new term limits on the presidency. In 2000, Hugo Chavez was reelected in a vote that the Carter Center refused to officially validate. Many say that Hugo Chavez plans to run for a third term, even if it takes a change to the constitution. Chavez also has put media regulations in place that limit speech against government officials.
Chavez’ presidency has been widely criticized. The country has been crippled by major strikes, and in 2002, the president of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, Pedro Carmona, was installed as the president during a military coup. Shortly thereafter, Chavez supporters in the military overthrew the coup, and Chavez was returned to power. Those who criticize him believe that despite the populist rhetoric, Chavez has tirelessly worked to fortify his individual power, tighten alliances with foreign allies, nationalize the country’s industry and use the government’s power to dictate changes in the lives of his people.
Hugo Chavez has steadily gained in notoriety on the world stage with his vitriolic criticisms of the United States, especially of President George W. Bush, and its allies. He has also aligned himself with some of the most controversial leaders of the early 21st century. His “friends” include Fidel Castro of Cuba, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and Saddam Hussein, during his presidency of Iraq.