Humanities › History & Culture Hugo Chavez Was Venezuela's Firebrand Dictator Share Flipboard Email Print Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images History & Culture Latin American History South American History History Before Columbus Colonialism and Imperialism Caribbean History Central American History Mexican History American History African American History African History Ancient History and Culture Asian History European History Genealogy Inventions Medieval & Renaissance History Military History The 20th Century Women's History View More By Christopher Minster Professor of History and Literature Ph.D., Spanish, Ohio State University M.A., Spanish, University of Montana B.A., Spanish, Penn State University Christopher Minster, Ph.D., is a professor at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. He is a former head writer at VIVA Travel Guides. our editorial process Christopher Minster Updated March 03, 2019 Hugo Chavez (1954 - 2013) was a former Army Lieutenant Colonel and President of Venezuela. A populist, Chávez instituted what he calls a “Bolivarian Revolution” in Venezuela, where key industries were nationalized and oil revenues were used in social programs for the poor. Hugo Chávez was a vocal critic of the United States of America and, in particular, former President George W. Bush, who he once famously and publicly called a “donkey.” He was very popular with poor Venezuelans, who in February of 2009 voted to abolish term limits, allowing him to run for re-election indefinitely. Early Life of Hugo Chavez Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was born on July 28, 1954, to a poor family in the town of Sabaneta in the province of Barinas. His father was a schoolteacher and opportunities for young Hugo were limited: he joined the military at the age of seventeen. He graduated from the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences when he was 21 and was commissioned as an officer. He attended college while in the military but did not get a degree. After his studies, he was assigned to a counter-insurgency unit, the start of a long and noteworthy military career. He also served as head of a paratrooper unit. Chávez in the Military Chávez was a skilled officer, moving up in the ranks quickly and earning several commendations. He eventually reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He spent some time as an instructor in his old school, the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences. During his time in the military, he came up with “Bolivarianism,” named for the liberator of northern South America, Venezuelan Simón Bolívar. Chávez even went so far as to form a secret society within the army, the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200, or the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement 200. Chávez has long been an admirer of Simón Bolívar. The Coup of 1992 Chávez was only one of many Venezuelans and army officers who were disgusted by corrupt Venezuelan politics, exemplified by President Carlos Pérez. Along with some fellow officers, Chávez decided to forcibly oust Pérez. In the morning of February 4, 1992, Chávez led five squads of loyal soldiers into Caracas, where they were to seize control of important targets including the Presidential Palace, the airport, the Defense Ministry and the military museum. All around the country, sympathetic officers seized control of other cities. Chávez and his men failed to secure Caracas, however, and the coup was quickly put down. Prison and Entry Into Politics Chávez was allowed to go on television to explain his actions, and the poor people of Venezuela identified with him. He was sent to prison but vindicated the following year when President Pérez was convicted in a massive corruption scandal. Chávez was pardoned by President Rafael Caldera in 1994 and soon entered politics. He turned his MBR 200 society into a legitimate political party, the Fifth Republic Movement (abbreviated as MVR) and in 1998 ran for president. President Chávez was elected in a landslide at the end of 1998, racking up 56% of the vote. Taking office in February 1999, he quickly began implementing aspects of his “Bolivarian” brand of socialism. Clinics were set up for the poor, construction projects were approved and social programs were added. Chávez wanted a new constitution and the people approved first the assembly and then the constitution itself. Among other things, the new constitution officially changed the name of the country to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” With a new constitution in place, Chávez had to run for re-election: he won easily. Coup Venezuela’s poor loved Chávez, but the middle and upper classed despised him. On April 11, 2002, a demonstration in support of the national oil company’s management (recently fired by Chávez) turned into a riot when the demonstrators marched on the presidential palace, where they clashed with pro-Chavez forces and supporters. Chávez briefly resigned and the United States was quick to recognize the replacement government. When pro-Chavez demonstrations broke out all over the country, he returned and resumed his presidency on April 13. Chávez always believed that the United States was behind the attempted coup. Political Survivor Chávez proved to be a tough and charismatic leader. His administration survived a recall vote in 2004 and used the results as a mandate to expand social programs. He emerged as a leader in the new Latin American leftist movement and had close ties with leaders such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo. His administration even survived a 2008 incident when laptops seized from Colombian Marxist rebels seemed to indicate that Chávez was funding them in their struggle against the Colombian government. In 2012 he easily won re-election in spite of repeated concerns over his health and his ongoing battle with cancer. Chávez and the US Much like his mentor Fidel Castro, Chávez gained much politically from his open antagonism with the United States. Many Latin Americans see the United States as an economic and political bully who dictates trade terms to weaker nations: this was particularly true during the George W. Bush administration. After the coup, Chávez went out of his way to defy the United States, establishing close ties to Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua and other nations recently unfriendly towards the US. He often went out of his way to rail against US imperialism, even once famously calling Bush a “donkey.” Administration and Legacy Hugo Chavez died on March 5, 2013, after a long battle with cancer. The final months of his life were full of drama, as he disappeared from public view not long after the 2012 elections. He was treated mainly in Cuba and rumors swirled as early as December 2012 that he had died. He returned to Venezuela in February of 2013 to continue his treatment there, but his illness eventually proved too much for his iron will. Chávez was a complicated political figure who did much for Venezuela, both good and bad. Venezuela's oil reserves are among the largest in the world, and he used much of the profits to benefit the poorest Venezuelans. He improved infrastructure, education, health, literacy and other social ills from which his people suffered. Under his guidance, Venezuela emerged as a leader in Latin America for those who do not necessarily think that the United States is always the best model to follow. Chavez's concern for Venezuela's poor was genuine. The lower socioeconomic classes rewarded Chávez with their unwavering support: they supported the new constitution and in early 2009 approved a referendum to abolish term limits on elected officials, essentially allowing him to run indefinitely. Not everyone thought the world of Chávez, however. Middle and upper-class Venezuelans despised him for nationalizing some of their lands and industries and were behind the numerous attempts to oust him. Many of them feared that Chávez was building dictatorial powers, and it is true that he had a dictatorial streak in him: he temporarily suspended Congress more than once and his 2009 referendum victory essentially allowed him to be President as long as the people kept electing him. The admiration of the people for Chavez carried over at least long enough for his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, to win a close presidential election a month after his mentor's death. He cracked down on the press, greatly increasing restrictions as well as punishments for slander. He drove through a change in how the Supreme Court is structured, which allowed him to stack it with loyalists. He was widely reviled in the United States for his willingness to deal with rogue nations such as Iran: conservative televangelist Pat Robertson once famously called for his assassination in 2005. His hatred for the United States government occasionally seemed often to approach the paranoid: he accused the USA of being behind any number of plots to remove or assassinate him. This irrational hatred sometimes drove him to pursue counter-productive strategies, such as supporting Colombian rebels, publicly denouncing Israel (resulting in hate crimes against Venezuelan Jews) and spending enormous sums on Russian-built weapons and aircraft. Hugo Chavez was the sort of charismatic politician who comes along only once a generation. The closest comparison to Hugo Chavez is probably Argentina's Juan Domingo Peron, another ex-military man turned populist strongman. Peron's shadow still looms over Argentine politics, and only time will tell how long Chavez will continue to influence his homeland.