Fiery rhetoric and lavish spending split opinion at home and abroad
HUGO Chavez, the president of Venezuela who has died aged 58, was a shrewd demagogue and combined brash but intoxicating rhetorical gifts with a free spending of oil revenues to turn himself into a leading figure on the world stage.
Although no intellectual, Chavez was interested in history and in the power of ideas, and had boundless ambition, both for himself and his country, all fuelled by oil money that gushed into his nation's coffers in the early years of the new millennium. It was a potent mix.
He first came to public attention in February 1992 when, as a young officer, he made a fleeting appearance on Venezuelan television screens during a botched coup attempt. The government survived, and Chavez went to jail. But he was not forgotten: he told the television audience he would be back, and within six years he was.
He won the 1998 presidential election, and set about making sure only he would decide when it was time to go.
Thereafter he won election after election, changing the constitution when necessary, and dividing the country into bitterly antagonistic pro and anti-Chavez camps. His admirers worshipped him as the fearless defender of the poor and nemesis of American imperialism; his opponents regarded him as an almost unmitigated disaster, bringing strife and shame.
Certainly, in the early 1990s, Venezuela was crying out for an anti-establishment saviour. Civilian politicians (who had ruled after the last military dictator in 1958) were jaded and discredited. The oil-price boom of the mid-1970s had financed an orgy of consumption, but things had turned sour when government revenues dwindled; when President Carlos Andres Perez was elected for a second term in 1989, he was forced to make heavy cuts.
In response, the inhabitants of the teeming shanty towns ringing Caracas descended on the city centre to riot, loot and burn. Perez unleashed the army on them and hundreds died, perhaps thousands.
Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chavez took no part in the bloodletting. But the repression helped to crystallise his political aims and ideas. He and a group of like-minded young officers had begun a decade earlier to discuss what was going wrong with their country, and how things could be put right.
They blamed the political parties for waste and corruption on a grand scale – for frittering away money that should have been spent on health, education, welfare, housing, roads and job creation – and formed their own clandestine political organisation, the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement (MBR-200), named after Venezuela's great national hero Simon Bolivar, the father of South American independence.
MBR-200 forged links with some, but not all, of Venezuela's many left-wing organisations, and began to plot. In early 1992 it made its move, briefly occupying the presidential palace. But the attempted coup was premature, and Chavez spent the next two years in prison. He used the time to refine his ideas so that, when he received a pardon from President Rafael Caldera in 1994, he was ready for his next venture.
Far from sinking into obscurity, as Caldera and his advisers had expected, Chavez and MBR-200 – renamed the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) – went from strength to strength.
The turning point came when Francisco Arias Cardenas, a fellow Leftist military officer and plotter of the 1992 coup, won an election that made him governor of the oil-rich Zulia state in 1995.
Chavez, realising that he could win political power through the ballot box, ditched plans for military intervention and pressed ahead with building an electoral strategy instead.
He acquired loyalty in the shanty towns, which had attracted migrants during the oil boom. On December 6, 1998, Chavez won 56pc of the vote in the presidential election.
Once in power, with world oil prices soaring again, Chavez began to flex his muscles. Within a few years he was proclaiming that Venezuela was on the road to "21st-century socialism", and he was in the vanguard of a movement to challenge American hegemony.
Chavez observed the forms and procedures of democracy – elections, parties, parliament – but his was a highly personal rule. He persuaded the government-controlled legislature to allow him rule by decree, enabling him to introduce sweeping changes to key sectors of the economy, including the oil industry and land ownership.
Attempts to unseat him failed, including a coup in April 2002 that lasted 48 hours before Chavez was swept back into power by loyal military officers and shanty-town mobs.
Massive increases in public spending, fuelled by oil revenues, were the key to his popularity. The downside was inflation, corruption, waste and a scramble for resources and influence among rival factions.
Meanwhile, his fiery anti-American rhetoric helped to make him an international celebrity. He toured the world, cementing alliances with countries such as Iran, Cuba, Russia and even Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He also courted China, with the eventual aim of its supplanting the United States as the main customer for Venezuelan oil, and advocated closer integration in South America.
Having been re-elected a fourth time, he failed to return to Venezuela from Cuba after surgery by January 10, 2013, when he was due to be sworn in. He eventually returned in mid-February, but had not been seen in public.
Hugo Chavez was born July 28, 1954 and died March 5, 2013.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)