Hugo Chavez, fiery Venezuelan leader, dies at 58

By Frank Bajak

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 5 2013 3:05 p.m. MST

"A revolution has arrived here," he declared in a 2009 speech. "No one can stop this revolution."

Chavez's social programs won him enduring support: Poverty rates declined from 50 percent at the beginning of his term in 1999 to 32 percent in the second half of 2011. But he also charmed his audience with sheer charisma and a flair for drama that played well for the cameras.

He ordered the sword of South American independence leader Simon Bolivar removed from Argentina's Central Bank to unsheathe at key moments. On television, he would lambast his opponents as "oligarchs," announce expropriations of companies and lecture Venezuelans about the glories of socialism. His performances included renditions of folk songs and impromptu odes to Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong and 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Chavez carried his in-your-face style to the world stage as well. In a 2006 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he called President George W. Bush the devil, saying the podium reeked of sulfur after Bush's address.

Critics saw Chavez as a typical Latin American caudillo, a strongman who ruled through force of personality and showed disdain for democratic rules. Chavez concentrated power in his hands with allies who dominated the congress and justices who controlled the Supreme Court.

He insisted all the while that Venezuela remained a vibrant democracy and denied trying to restrict free speech. But some opponents faced criminal charges and were driven into exile.

While Chavez trumpeted plans for communes and an egalitarian society, his soaring rhetoric regularly conflicted with reality. Despite government seizures of companies and farmland, the balance between Venezuela's public and private sectors changed little during his presidency.

And even as the poor saw their incomes rise, those gains were blunted while the country's currency weakened amid economic controls.

Nonetheless, Chavez maintained a core of supporters who stayed loyal to their "comandante" until the end.

"Chavez masterfully exploits the disenchantment of people who feel excluded ... and he feeds on controversy whenever he can," Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka wrote in their book "Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial President."

Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born on July 28, 1954, in the rural town of Sabaneta in Venezuela's western plains. He was the son of schoolteacher parents and the second of six brothers.

Chavez was a fine baseball player and hoped he might one day pitch in the U.S. major leagues. When he joined the military at age 17, he aimed to keep honing his baseball skills in the capital.

But the young soldier immersed himself in the history of Bolivar and other Venezuelan heroes who had overthrown Spanish rule, and his political ideas began to take shape.

Chavez burst into public view in 1992 as a paratroop commander leading a military rebellion that brought tanks to the presidential palace. When the coup collapsed, Chavez was allowed to make a televised statement in which he declared that his movement had failed "for now." The speech, and those two defiant words, launched his career, searing his image into the memory of Venezuelans.

He and other coup prisoners were released in 1994, and President Rafael Caldera dropped the charges against them.

Chavez then organized a new political party and ran for president four years later, vowing to shatter Venezuela's traditional two-party system. At age 44, he became the country's youngest president in four decades of democracy with 56 percent of the vote.

Chavez was re-elected in 2000 in an election called under a new constitution drafted by his allies. His increasingly confrontational style and close ties to Cuba, however, disenchanted many of the middle-class supporters who had voted for him. The next several years saw bold but failed attempts by opponents to dislodge him from power.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere

Subscribe

Mobile

RSS