Chavez Holds Presidency
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is an unusual statesman,
infamous for his antics: calling President Bush "the
devil" in September 2006 when speaking before the
United Nations and saying the General Assembly still
smelled of "sulfur" a day after he left. In a dispute
with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2005,
Chavez called her "pathetic," "illiterate" and even
made sexual jokes.
has described Mexican President Vicente Fox as the
"puppy dog" of U.S. imperialism, and he has fired
Venezuelan government employees while addressing his
country on television.
Critics have dismissed his rhetoric as unthinking
commentary, while supporters insist he is an intelligent
and skilled strategist, well aware of the effects
of his actions. He has pushed an ambitious social
and political agenda in Venezuela since his election
in 1998, and he continues to inspire effusive praise
from his supporters and overt hatred from his foes
after his 2006 re-election.
Friend to the poor
or oppressive dictator?
Despite the seemingly bizarre conduct of Chavez as
a diplomat, the majority of Venezuelans approve of
him. In the December 2006 election, Chavez unequivocally
beat his opponent, Manuel Rosales, 63 percent to 37
percent, according to Venezuela's electoral council.
Since his first election, Chavez has benefited from
extraordinary oil revenue and in turn poured billions
of dollars into social welfare programs known as "missions,"
designed to better provide health services, education
and food to the poor, which until recently accounted
for about half of the Venezuelan population.
According to Venezuela's National Institute of Statistics,
poverty has decreased during Chavez's presidency from
42 percent in 1999 to roughly 35-38 percent in 2005.
Upon election, Chavez promptly eliminated fees for
public schools and created volunteer-based schools
in rural communities to widen education access. In
an infamous "oil-for-services" program, he sold oil
to Cuba at a favorable rate in exchange for Cuban
doctors to provide health care to Venezuelans who
would otherwise have none.
Chavez's critics, however, argue that this social
welfare programs equate to handouts.
"[Chavez] has been using a lot of money to provide
handouts to Venezuela's poor that keeps them under
the illusion that they are solving the problems on
a permanent basis, but the handouts are just a temporary
cure," says Gustavo Coronel, a former member of the
Board of Directors of Petroleos de Venezuela and author
of the CATO Institute study, "Corruption, Mismanagement,
and Abuse of Power in Hugo Chavez's Venezuela."
"They worsen the main problems of Venezuela society,
which includes the dependence of Venezuela on the
His critics also say that Chavez's social policies
have weakened the economy -- something Chavez blames
on an attempted coup in 2002 and the national oil
strike in 2002-3.
And Chavez's foes point to a series of moves consolidating
political power, including a 1999 referendum that
helped create a new Bolivarian constitution permitting
consecutive re-election of the president. They also
point to larger ambitions.
"Supposedly, he is involved in Bolivia and other
weak democracies to try to sabotage those governments
there. There are all types of rumors," Miguel Diaz,
a Latin American analyst who worked at the CIA in
the early 1990s, told the NewsHour.
From the countryside
to the presidential palace
Chavez was born to two primary-school teachers of
limited means in the countryside of the interior plains
of Venezuela. Unable to support him, his parents sent
him and one of his brothers to live nearby with his
grandmother Rosa Ines.
Chavez's introduction to Marxist ideology was nurtured
from adolescence; veteran communist Jose Esteban Ruiz
Guevara, father to two of his close friends in secondary
school, provided him with works from his personal
age 17, Chavez enrolled at the Venezuelan Academy
of Military Sciences.
Disillusioned after witnessing the army's violent
put down of leftist rebels, he began volunteering
his services to the guerillas' cause through his older
brother, a Marxist activist.
Chavez led two lives, working his way up the army
hierarchy ladder, while plotting a revolution. As
a teacher at the Academy of Military Sciences in Caracas,
he formed the core of the group that would later become
his Bolivarian movement. He recruited cadets and young
officers who would be of assistance in his later plans.
In February 1992, Chavez led a revolt of middle-ranking
military officers against President Carlos Andres
Perez. Although his cohorts managed to secure control
of several key military bases, Chavez's attempt to
overtake the presidential palace in Caracas was unsuccessful.
His captors thought themselves victorious when he
surrendered himself and gave a concession speech calling
for his comrades to surrender:
"Lamentably for now, our objectives were not achieved
in the capital," Chavez said. "But it now is time
to reflect that new situations will arise for the
country to take the road toward a better destiny.
... I assume responsibility for this Bolivarian military
In 1994, Chavez was released from his prison sentence
for the earlier failed coup and created a political
party called the Fifth Republican Movement. Before
Chavez emerged, two political parties -- that most
of the country saw as corrupt and elitist -- had been
dominating Venezuelan politics for the previous 40
years. So Chavez's populist stance made him a national
icon, a hero who won 56 percent of the vote in the
1998 presidential election.
"Chavez came to power because of the collapse of
the traditional parties, because of a discrediting
of the previous system, in a sense. … And he thrives
on this confrontation with the United States, in fact
to increase his popularity among his people," Arturo
Valenzuela, professor of government and director of
the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown
University, told the NewsHour in 2005.
Since the 1998 presidential victory, Chavez withstood
a coup in 2002, a national oil strike in 2002-3 and
a recall referendum on his presidency in 2004. In
December 2006, he beat his opponent with ease. The
opposition to Chavez remains at square one.
Chavez has launched a public relations attack against
the United States and President Bush, creating diplomatic
relations with U.S. foes such as Iran and attempting
to rally other Latin American countries to resist
U.S. interference in the region.
his antics can be alienating to Venezuela's middle
and upper classes, they reflect both Chavez's humble
origins as well as his ties to Venezuela's poor.
"His discourse can be interpreted as polarizing because
it breaks with the protocol one assumes of a traditional
president of Venezuela and Latin America," said Miguel
Tinker Salas, a professor in Latin American history
at Pomona College. "It underscores the reach between
the reality most Venezuelans live in and the reality
most elites and upper middle class exist in."
But although Chavez's critics prefer to label him
a "buffoon," some analysts insist his bravado masks
a skilled tactician who knows the political consequences
of his behavior.
"He uses strong language, comes forth with contentious
statements that are very provocative," said Larry
Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
"All of this is a matter of style, not substance."
And although his public speech is often littered
with insults more appropriate in a school yard than
an international stage, they also are replete with
references to philosophical and literary classics.
The first Venezuelan president of mixed racial descent
and hailing from the interior plains of the country,
Chavez is eager to appear an intellectual.
Coronel of the CATO Institute notes that the military
did not provide Chavez with a rigorous education.
"Social expectations were not fulfilled," he said.
"It must have put quite a load of resentment on him.
He's obviously driven by social class resentment."