On April 11, after hundreds of thousands marched on the presidential palace to force him out and a score of civilians, from both sides, had been shot dead in circumstances never fully explained, senior military officers turned against him. According to his loyalist general Lucas Rincon Romero, Chavez (who later admitted he had deliberately provoked the crisis) agreed to resign.
A lack of coherent leadership on the opposition side, and an attempt by hardline civilian and military figures to hijack the revolt, caused the collapse of the new regime after less than two days, and Chavez returned in triumph. Subsequent attempts to unseat him by shutting down the oil industry and through a recall referendum in mid-2004, also failed.
Chavez by now had sufficient grip on the country’s institutions to be able to postpone the referendum long enough for the rising price of oil to refloat his government. An astute intervention by revolutionary leader Fidel Castro’s Cuba led to the creation of the so-called “missions” — populist social programs funded by oil money that would prove crucial in keeping Chavez in power in succeeding years.
The opposition cried fraud, but failed to present the evidence. Its decision, in October 2005, to boycott parliamentary elections on the same grounds marked the low point for anti-Chavez forces. With the entire legislature in his hands, along with the oil industry and the armed forces, the president was able to take advantage of record export earnings, and in 2006 was re-elected with an increased majority.
During his 1998 presidential campaign, Chavez had insisted that he was “neither of the left nor the right.”
By 2006, he felt sufficiently secure to declare that socialism was the only way forward. Specifically, it was “21st-century socialism” — a vaguely defined hotchpotch of ideas, whose only consistent ingredient was an ever greater concentration of power in the hands of one man.
The former lieutenant-colonel had always insisted that his revolution was “peaceful, but armed.”
After purging the military of all those suspected of disloyalty to the leader, he obliged officers and troops to adopt the Cuban-inspired slogan “socialist motherland or death.”
Armed civilian groups also swore to defend the revolution against enemies within and without. These included opponents in the media, the universities and the church.
Emboldened by his election victory, Chavez moved to close down RCTV, the country’s oldest television channel and a determined opponent of his regime. A dormant student movement re-awoke, took to the streets and — though it failed to save RCTV — helped stave off a bid by the president to rewrite the constitution yet again, this time along dictatorial lines.
Describing the opposition’s victory in the 2007 constitutional referendum as “shit,” Chavez revived his “por ahora” slogan and succeeded in rescuing the central plank of his proposed reform — indefinite presidential re-election — by putting it to a fresh referendum in early 2008.
The opposition revival continued, and in November that year it won control of several large states and the capital, Caracas.
The president retaliated by stripping mayors and governors of many of their budgets. He adopted a similar tactic in 2010 when, with the economy in recession, the opposition won around half the vote in parliamentary elections, but — thanks to the abolition of proportional representation — ended up with 67 seats to the government’s 98.