Cancer has finally done what internal and American enemies could not: kill Hugo Chavez. The four-times elected Venezuelan president was diagnosed with an abscessed tumour in 2011 and underwent extensive treatment in Cuba. Though he announced himself fully cured last year in time for the October election, doctors found more malignant cells. After two months of treatment in Cuba, he returned home to die.
His death yesterday aged 58 unleashed a wave of international tributes and a flood of emotion in Venezuela. His deputy Nicolas Maduro, who is favoured to win a new election in 30 days, spoke of “the immense pain of this historic tragedy.” Maduro called on Venezuelans to show love, respect and tranquility. “We ask our people to channel this pain into peace,” Maduro said.
Chavez leaves an immense void Maduro will find hard to fill. Chavez has dominated Venezuelan politics for two decades and became a major world political figure. Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was the second of six sons of schoolteachers in the town of Sabaneta in the Western state of Barinas. Older brother Adán Chávez Frías is now the governor of that state. At 17, Hugo Chavez joined the Venezuelan academy of Military Sciences where he achieved Master’s degrees in military science and engineering. Chavez remained in the army and worked his way up to become lieutenant colonel.
While a student, he developed his key philosophy: Bolivarianism, named for the greatest of South America’s generals and fellow Venezuelan Simon Bolivar. Bolivar proclaimed Venezuelan independence from Spain in 1810 and fought running battles with the Spanish over the next 11 years before becoming president of the original republic of Colombia (now Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela). Chavez saw Bolivarianism as promoting the unification of Latin America. In 1999 he changed the constitution and name of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Chavez first came to national prominence in 1992. Venezuela was undergoing a crisis in neo-liberal president Carlos Andres Perez‘s second term. Venezuela’s economic stability was under threat when the Arab countries raised oil production quotas to aid the collapse of the oil revenue-dependent Soviet Union. Prices plummeted and Perez introduced austerity measures. Chavez and fellow officer Francisco Arias Cardenas founded the MBR-200 (Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionaro 200) which plotted to overthrow the government. The coup of February 4, 1992 failed. Chavez had the loyalty of only 10% of the armed forces and failed to take the national TV station. Perez eluded capture and Chavez eventually surrendered. He went to prison but poor Venezuelans saw him as a victim who had stood up against government corruption. Perez was ousted in 1993 and Chavez was pardoned by new president Rafael Caldera in 1994.
In 1998 Chavez campaigned for the presidency and gained significant support from Venezuela’s two largest banks. He won the election with 56% of the popular vote. He immediately got to work on road building, housing construction and mass vaccination. He also halted privatisations of the national social security system, the aluminium industry and the oil sector. He lobbied OPEC to reduce production to increase revenues. He was re-elected with an increased majority in 2000.
In 2002 his reform of the state oil company sparked a military coup. He was replaced and arrested. This sparked massive pro-Chavez protests and condemnation from the rest of South America. Chavez was restored to the leadership in triumph two days later. Only then did the US condemn the coup. British broadsheet The Observer said the coup was linked to three senior US government officials, national security adviser Elliot Abrams, special envoy Otto Reich and intelligence chief John Negroponte.
Internal opposition to Chavez remained fierce. In 2004, Sumate (Spanish for “Join in”), a shadowy volunteer civil association funded by the US State Department, collected millions of signatures and activated the 1999 Constitution’s presidential recall provision. Chavez survived with a 60% ‘no’ vote against the measure.
Chavez used Venezuela’s increasing oil revenues on expanding social programs. Economic activity also picked up markedly, reaching double-digit growth in 2004. He forged links with Argentina’s president Kirchner, China’s Hu, Cuba’s Castro and Iran’s Ahmadinejad. He ordered US troops and Christian missions out of Venezuela in 2005 and gave back 7000 square kilometres of land to Amazonian tribes. He denounced US foreign policy but was the first leader to offer assistance to America after Cyclone Katrina. He told AP, “We place at the disposition of the people of the United States in the event of shortages: we have drinking water, food, we can provide fuel”. His offer was turned down.
Chavez was comfortably re-elected in December 2006 and he set up a commission to review the 1999 constitution. His referendum to include socially progressive reforms was narrowly defeated but he won another referendum to change the law to let him run again in 2012. Despite the downturn in the Venezuelan economy and the increase in crime, he won again easily.
Chavez remained deeply unpopular in elite US circles to the end. The Atlantic announced the death of a “controversial socialist revolutionary who rose to become president of Venezuela on failed promises of elevating the poor.” The New York Times was more nuanced but still judged his legacy as “a governing structure revolving around a single willful, mercurial personality.” President Obama carefully avoided praising Chavez while promising to develop a “constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government”.
Writing in Crikey today, Guy Rundle said the simplistic reporting of Chavez in the west was based on the disjuncture between rich and poor countries that prompted Chavez’s rise to power. “The con job of global neoliberalism, the promise, after the collapse of communism, that playing by the rules of a market-based global system, other countries could join the First World club,” Rundle said. Nicolas Maduro now faces the formidable challenge of steering Venezuela through Chavez’s considerable and complex legacy.