Frontline World

VENEZUELA, A Critical Turning Point, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
Venezuela: A Critical Turning Point
My Country's Rise and Fall
Hugo Chavez Comes to Power
The President's Foes Strike Back
Tapping a Nationalist Vein
Chavez's Remarkable Staying Power
A Clash Between Rich and Poor
Venzuela's Next Chapter
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Hugo Chavez Comes to Power

Chavez's Revolution: From Prison Cell to Presidential Palace

Army Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez talks to reporters on March 26, 1994.

Army Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez, who headed a 1992 attempted coup against the government of then-president Carlos Andres Perez, talks to reporters on March 26, 1994, after being freed from jail. Over the next few years, Chavez would develop a support base and eventually be elected president. (Agence France-Presse)
Chavez emerged from prison in 1994 as a popular populist figure. He enjoyed financial support from political groups that had been left out of the traditional parties' power-sharing agreements. The poor, the intellectuals and the traditional left also supported him. He ran for president in 1998 and was elected with 56 percent of the vote.

In the early months of his presidency, Chavez's support shot up even further, reaching 80 percent according to the polls. Seen from my perch as a student in Europe, Chavez's ascent from prison to the presidential palace seemed like a surreal spectacle. It seemed even less likely that, as president, he would actually usher in revolutionary change, as he had promised in his election campaign.

Though he'd campaigned for the presidency as a militant, once in office President Hugo Chavez proved to be a bit of a puzzle. Although he spoke the language of the left and expressed admiration for Fidel Castro, his initial economic and political decisions mimicked the steps any neoliberal regime might have taken. The new president deregulated the telecommunications sector and moved to control inflation. He didn't run an openly authoritarian government.

Although he continually criticized the press and belittled his opponents -- calling them oligarchs and escuálidos, the squalid people -- no journalist was ever thrown in jail. But he did embark on an intense campaign to control the country's institutions, and this campaign roiled the political establishment.

He abolished the congress and the supreme court in the first year of his government. Then he proposed a new constitution, which won 71 percent approval from those who voted in December 1999 (large numbers of eligible voters stayed away from the polls). The new constitution included improved guarantees for human rights, but it also increased the powers of the president. The constitution changed the official name of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Though Chavez actively sought foreign investment during his early years in office, he also made investors cringe with his fiery antirich rhetoric. His proposal for a land reform law, for example, was actually relatively moderate, merely an update of what had been decreed as far back as the 1960s. But the measure was accompanied by a series of speeches that scared not only large landowners but also middle-class people who feared that the right to private property was threatened.

"Oligarchs, tremble!" the president liked to say. But the middle class trembled too. Some 150,000 middle-class Venezuelans -- including my parents, who feared a rerun of the Cuban Revolution they'd fled -- trembled all the way to Costa Rica, Miami and Madrid.

Both rich and poor, in other words, initially responded more to Chavez's rhetoric than to his policies. In a development that probably surprised even the young president, Chavez succeeded not only in awakening the poor, who largely supported him, but also in enraging professionals of all stripes. Suddenly the middle class embraced what had seemed mundane activity to them before -- movement politics -- setting off a grass roots rebellion against the would-be modern Bolívar.

Despite the advent of the highest oil prices in a decade, the economy shrank by 6 percent between 1998 and 1999. From 1999 to 2002 -- as Chavez toured the world, visiting leaders like Castro, Muammar Khadaffi and Saddam Hussein -- more than $21 billion left the country. Foreign investment fell from $1.5 billion to $226 million in the same period. The polls showed Chavez's popularity dropping, from a high of 80 percent at the beginning of his term in 1999 to a low of 34 percent in December 2001.

NEXT: The President's Foes Strike Back