When lieutenant colonel Hugo Chavez, who died last week aged 58 after suffering from cancer, first appeared on Venezuelan television screens, on the morning of Feb. 4, 1992, it was as an obscure army officer who had just failed to overthrow the then-president, Carlos Andres Perez. Allowed to speak live to the nation, Chavez turned the announcement of his surrender into a curious kind of victory, the fruits of which would become apparent seven years later, when he entered the presidential palace as the country’s elected leader.
The coup’s objectives, he announced, were unobtainable “por ahora” (for now) — and that phrase would echo in the popular imagination, because politically, economically and socially the country was mired in crisis.
Chavez had been born 38 years earlier in the small provincial town of Sabaneta, at the western edge of the vast plains — known as the llanos — that occupy much of the interior of Venezuela. His parents were both teachers, but a passion for baseball led him to enroll in the military academy aged 17.
As a young officer, he became disillusioned with the armed forces and with the system they served. Corruption and human rights abuses, he later said, led him to sympathize more with the guerrillas he was supposed to combat in the mid-70s than with his own superiors, and he determined to form his own revolutionary organization.
His elder brother Adan, a radical university professor, put him in touch with guerrilla leaders with whom he would conspire for more than a decade before launching his uprising without them.
Several military bases were seized, but Chavez failed to take the palace, and Perez escaped. The plotters were sentenced to lengthy jail terms, but the president was later impeached and his eventual successor, Rafael Caldera, ordered the cases against them be dropped.
Persuaded to take the electoral route, for tactical reasons, Chavez stood for president with a promise to sweep aside the old order, rewrite the constitution and eliminate corruption. Riding a wave of disgust with politics, he won 56 percent of the vote and strode to power over the ruins of a 40-year-old two-party system.
An elected assembly, almost entirely composed of his supporters, produced a constitution — approved by referendum in December 1999 — that extended the presidential term to six years and allowed immediate re-election. The senate was abolished, the role of the armed forces expanded, and new “moral” and “electoral” branches of government created.
The country’s name was changed to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, in honor of the liberation hero Simon Bolivar, whose cause -— betrayed, allegedly, by the “oligarchy” — Chavez claimed to have inherited. However, the early results were inauspicious: The economy shrank by more than 7 percent in 1999, and immediately after the constitutional referendum Venezuela was hit by catastrophic floods and landslides.
Fresh elections in 2000, under the new constitution, nonetheless consolidated Chavez’s grip on power. The new parliament granted him sweeping powers, which he used to enact radical laws, drafted in secret and unveiled as a package in 2001, which divided the country.
However, it was his attempt, in early 2002, to impose party control over the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, that sparked the revolt that almost ousted him.