Hugo Chavez, Controversial Venezuelan Leader, Dies at 58

Hugo Chavez image by Jose Cruz of Agencia Brasil

The announcement was made, very slowly, by the tearful Vice-President, Nicholas Maduro. Venezuela’s leader for 14 years, Hugo Chavez, had died. The man who polarized opinions at home and around the world lost his two-year battle with cancer.

President Obama made a brief statement in response to the news: “At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government. As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.”

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina, President Evo Morales of Bolivia, and President Jose Mujica of Uruguay have all arrived in Venezuela to offer their condolences. However, not everyone is mourning the man’s passing.  Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said “Hugo Chavez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear. His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator.”

Venezuela has announced a seven-day period of mourning, with all schools to be closed. The country’s armed forces fired a 21-gun salute in Chavez’s honor, and will continue to fire one shot per hour until the president’s burial. Chavez’s body will be brought to Venezuela’s Military Academy in a procession today, where it will lie in state through Friday. While it hasn’t been decided where Chavez is to be buried, some officials have suggested burying him next to Simon Bolivar, the leader of Venezuela’s independence.

Born in 1954 in the small village of Sabaneta, Venezuela, Chavez was raised by his schoolteacher parents alongside six siblings. Because of his family’s poverty, Chavez was sent to live with his grandmother for a time. His family hoped for him to be a Catholic priest, but instead Chavez became a cadet at the Military Academy. It was here that Chavez and his friends came to develop a new political ideology that they called “Bolivarianism”, combining bits and pieces of the political ideas of Simon Bolivar, Communism, and some radical-liberal Christian groups.

During Chavez’s career in Venezuela’s military, he formed a secret radical network within the military in the hopes of one day seizing power. In 1989, Carlos Andres Perez was elected president of Venezuela, and within months his policies had led to street rioting and a major crackdown by the military that left hundreds and possibly thousands dead. Chavez took this as a sign to take action. After some delays, he attempted a military coup in February 1992, but his plans fell apart and he was arrested. He was allowed a brief statement to the press before being carted off, and the speech he gave catapulted him into the national spotlight. Spontaneous protestors began calling for Chavez’s release, and after two years in prison, Perez’s successor, Rafael Cardera, pardoned Chavez.

Over the next few years Chavez built up his political support, and ran for and won election as president in 1998. During his first term he was relatively moderate politically, and remained popular in part due to his aid for the country’s poor and in part for his personal charisma that drew the media into loving him. He set up his own weekly TV and radio talk shows where he would explain his policies and take calls from citizens. He soon called for a new constitution, and a few referendums later he had it.

As time went on, however, Chavez’s policies grew increasingly liberal and increasingly heavy-handed. Middle-class Venezuelans lost ground during Chavez’s presidency, even as the poor were increasingly better off. Human rights monitors began accusing Chavez of trying to set up a dictatorship, and Chavez began openly criticizing and insulting the United States. In 2002, Chavez was overthrown in a coup, but his supporters turned out en masse and within days Chavez was back in power.

The face of a man who fears no coup.

The face of a man who fears no coup.

With each election, Chavez gained more power. He won re-election in 2006 and then won the right to run for re-election indefinitely. He had political opponents arrested and opposition media outlets closed. He also got more radical, nationalizing key industries, redistributing land, and using oil revenues to provide free services to the poor. He set fixed levels for food prices and pushed for Venezuela to be self-sufficient in food production; when food shortages became increasingly common, he blamed hoarders and speculators. He supported the Marxist FARC rebellion in Colombia. He grew more confrontational with the U.S. He praised the leaders of Cuba, Iran, Libya, and Zimbabwe while publicly insulting the leaders of America and its allies. He was also quite rude at international summits, at one point prompting the King of Spain to tell him, “Shut up!”. He began telling his people to celebrate Marxist heroes like Che Guevara while condemning the celebration of Halloween, calling it a “gringo custom” and “terrorism”. Still, his willingness to stand up to Uncle Sam meant he was very popular throughout Latin America, and radical-leftist governments more or less aligned with Chavez were elected in many countries.

In high school, I was able to see the controversy of Hugo Chavez up close and personal. One of my classmates had family that lived in Venezuela at the time. She told me that they were probably going to have to leave because of Chavez’s rule – they feared he would seize their land.

In 2011, Chavez revealed that he had been diagnosed with cancer, and went to Cuba for surgery and treatment. He returned the next year to run for a fourth term, which he won, but he soon fell ill again and wasn’t able to take the oath of office. Instead, he spent the last months of his life either in a hospital in Cuba or a hospital in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, fighting for his life against a recurrence of his cancer and then a post-surgery respiratory infection. In his announcement of Chavez’s death, Maduro claimed that Chavez’s cancer was somehow intentionally caused by the United States – a statement the White House called “absurd”.

So what happens now for Venezuela? According to the country’s constitution, the presidency should fall to the leader of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello. But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, Vice-President Nicholas Maduro has taken over the presidency, pending an upcoming election in 30 days, claiming he was hand-picked by Chavez to take over. It is unclear how Chavez’s death will affect Venezuela’s relationship with the U.S. or the rest of Latin America. For now, it is reasonable to assume that the upcoming election will be what determines that, at least in the short term.

Information from BBC News, Univision, NBC News, Fox News, CNN, and Wikipedia.

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