Chavez: life and death of Venezuela’s controversial president

By Phil Gunson  /  The Guardian

Sun, Mar 10, 2013 - Page 9

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.

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.

Even this was too much for the president, who had the loyalists in the outgoing legislature grant him sweeping decree powers for the next 18 months, effectively bypassing parliament.

At the same time, a couple of dozen laws completed the process of implementing the bulk of the constitutional reform rejected by the electorate in 2007. In particular, a package of five laws aimed at setting up a “communal state” threatened to render what remained of representative democracy in Venezuela a purely decorative matter.

In June 2011 Chavez gave a televised address from Cuba saying that he was recovering from an operation to remove a cancerous tumor. In July last year he declared himself fully recovered just three months before an election, which he won.

In November and again in December he returned to Cuba for more cancer treatment. His allies took the winning 20 out of 23 governorships as favorable auguries for the continuation of Chavismo after his death. Last month he returned to Caracas.

The debate continued as to whether Chavez could fairly be described as a dictator, but a democrat he most certainly was not.

A hero to many, especially among the poor, for his populist social programs, he assiduously fomented class hatred and used his control of the judiciary to persecute and jail his political opponents, many of whom were forced into exile.

Contemptuous of private property, he seized millions of hectares of farmland and scores of businesses, often with little or no compensation. The result was an even more oil-dependent economy, which in place of the “endogenous development” promised by the revolution, relied on imports for basic foodstuffs once produced domestically.

Internationally, Chavez posed as an anti-imperialist and lavished aid on ideological allies.

Venezuela would, he claimed, play a vital role in saving the planet from the evils of capitalism.

In a notorious speech to the UN general assembly in 2006, he called then-US president George W. Bush “the devil,” claiming the podium still smelled of sulfur.

It went down well in some quarters, but economic failure at home and the cozy relations he had enjoyed with dictators such as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi would ultimately limit his appeal, even on the international left.