Chavez carried his in-your-face style to the world stage as well. In a 2006 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he called President George W. Bush the devil, saying the podium reeked of sulfur after the U.S. president’s address.
At a summit in 2007, he repeatedly called Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a fascist, prompting Spain’s King Juan Carlos to snap, ‘‘Why don’t you shut up?’’
Critics saw Chavez as a typical Latin American caudillo, a strongman who ruled through force of personality and showed disdain for democratic rules. Chavez concentrated power in his hands with allies who dominated the congress and justices who controlled the Supreme Court.
‘‘El Comandante,’’ as he was known, insisted Venezuela remained a vibrant democracy and denied charges that he sought to restrict free speech. But some opponents faced criminal charges and were driven into exile. His government forced the opposition-aligned television channel, RCTV, off the air by refusing to renew its license.
While Chavez trumpeted plans for communes and an egalitarian society, his rhetoric regularly conflicted with reality. Despite government seizures of companies and farmland, the balance between Venezuela’s public and private sectors changed little during his presidency.
Nonetheless, Chavez maintained a core of supporters who stayed loyal to their ‘‘comandante’’ until the end.
‘‘Chavez masterfully exploits the disenchantment of people who feel excluded ... and he feeds on controversy whenever he can,’’ Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka wrote in their book ‘‘Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela’s Controversial President.’’
Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born on July 28, 1954, in the rural town of Sabaneta in Venezuela’s western plains, the son of schoolteachers and the second of six brothers. He was raised by his grandmother, Rosa Ines, in a home with a dirt floor, mud walls and a roof made of palm fronds.
Chavez was a fine baseball player and hoped he might one day pitch in the U.S. major leagues. When he joined the military at age 17, he aimed to keep honing his baseball skills in the capital.
But between his army duties and drills, the young soldier immersed himself in the history of Bolivar and other Venezuelan heroes who had overthrown Spanish rule, and his political ideas began to take shape.
Chavez burst into public view in 1992 as a paratroop commander leading a military rebellion that brought tanks to the presidential palace. When the coup collapsed, Chavez was allowed to make a televised statement in which he declared that his movement had failed ‘‘for now.’’ The speech, and those two defiant words, launched his career, searing his image into the memory of Venezuelans.
Two years later, he and other coup leaders were released from prison, and President Rafael Caldera dropped the charges against them.
After organizing a new party, Chavez ran for president in 1998, pledging to clean up Venezuela’s entrenched corruption and shatter its traditional two-party system. At age 44, he became the country’s youngest president, winning 56 percent of the vote.
After he took office on Feb. 2, 1999, Chavez called for a new constitution, and an assembly filled with his allies drafted the document. Among various changes, it lengthened presidential terms from five years to six and changed the country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
By 2000, his increasingly confrontational style and close ties to Cuba disenchanted many of the middle-class supporters who voted for him, and the next several years saw bold attempts by opponents to dislodge him from power.
In 2002, he survived a short-lived coup, which began after large anti-Chavez street protests ended in shootings and bloodshed. Dissident military officers detained the president and announced he had resigned. But within two days, he returned to power with the help of military loyalists amid massive protests by his supporters.
Chavez emerged a stronger president.
He defeated an opposition-led strike that paralyzed the country’s oil industry and fired thousands of state oil company employees.
The coup also turned Chavez more decidedly against the U.S. government, which had swiftly recognized the provisional leader who briefly replaced him. He created political and trade alliances that excluded the U.S., and he cozied up to Iran and Syria in large part, it seemed, due to their shared antagonism toward the U.S. government. Despite the souring relationship, Chavez kept selling the bulk of Venezuela’s oil to the United States.Continued...