This post originally appeared on QuietMike.org, republished with permission from the author
The larger than life, fourteen year populist leader of Venezuela Hugo Chavez passed away after a two year bout with cancer last Tuesday. The man who championed himself as a revolutionary and savior of the poor died at the age of 58.
Chavez and his five siblings grew up on their father’s rural teaching salary. With little money and a growing family he soon went to live with his grandparents to try and ease the financial burden. Chavez grew up in a Venezuela ruled by a list of dictators, converting later into a democracy in which the dominant political parties shared power regardless of how Venezuelans voted.
At 17, Chavez joined the military academy with the hopes of playing baseball. An injury kept him from realizing his baseball dreams, but it set in motion his rise to political office. As Venezuela grew increasingly corrupt, Chavez who witnessed the country’s poverty first hand, couldn’t comprehend that despite the country’s vast oil wealth, most Venezuelans had to fight hard just to get by.
In the early 1990’s, Corruption and austerity measures crippled the government with approval ratings below 20%. So, in 1992, Hugo Chavez led a failed coup that resulted in his surrender; however he was allowed to go on national television to inform his comrades to surrender.
During that one minute of airtime he took responsibility for the coup’s failure, the thing is, he did it in a country where no one took responsibility for anything. He served two years in prison only to be released to try and slow his growing popularity.
In 1998 Chavez ran for office for the first time and won with 56% of the vote. He would go on to win three more presidential elections, the last of which he won last October with 54% of total votes. In his first term of two years he traveled the world and won a referendum to change the constitution, laying the foundation in which he hoped to build the country on.
Throughout it all, Chavez never forgot his roots. When he began his first term in 1999, half the population of Venezuela was below the poverty line. Before his last election victory it had dropped from about 50% down to around 30%. More importantly, extreme poverty fell by over 75%.
During his tenure Chavez made a lot of friends and enemies both at home and abroad. At home the poor loved him. He used his country’s vast oil wealth to introduce social programs that include state-run food markets, new public housing, educational programs and free health clinics (he raised health spending from 1% to 7% of GDP alone).
While the poor loved him, the rich despised him. Even though his first term could be considered a centrist administration, the start of the second would change that. Led by wealthy business leader Pedro Carmona, Anti-Chavez military officers supported by the business community (Venezuelan Chambers of Commerce), private media and certain political parties tried to oust him in a coup.
The Coup D’état seemed to work at first. They organized protests in the streets and used it as a screen to overthrow the president. They tried to frame Chavez for violence breaking out in the streets claiming he was using the military to crack down on dissent. It was later revealed it was the coup supporters that were largely responsible for the violence. The coup ultimately failed as the population out in the streets demanded Hugo’s return.
Whenever there is a coup in South America you can be sure that the United States had a part to play. Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama and El-Salvador could attest to that claim. It’s no surprise the US was the first country to recognize the Carmona government, but after it lasted less than 48 hours, the US backtracked. The failed coup against Chavez marked the last known attempt by the United States to undermine the will of a foreign populace.
From that point on, Chavez began to speak out against American Imperialism and started to govern from a more radical leftist position. In 2003 the state took over 51% of the country’s oil industry (which it was planning before the coup attempt). He built up his military readiness in anticipation of an American invasion. He also made friends with America’s enemies, namely Iran, Syria and Libya (the enemy of my enemy is my friend as they say).
From the beginning, Chavez set out to help other leftist governments in Central and South America which now make up the bulk of the continent. He founded the Bank of the South with the help of Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia. The bank is to be an alternative to the IMF and World Bank which have screwed over some of these countries in the past. Unlike the IMF, there are no political conditions to receive funds. In 2007 alone, Chavez gave $8.8 billion to help development in other Latin American countries.
Like I said, Chavez did have his faults. Aside from allying himself with sometimes brutal dictators, he was known to be on the anti-Semitic side. In fact, half of all Jews reportedly left the country during his time in office. Inflation soared at times, hurting the poor above all and the homicide rate rose to among the highest in the world peeking in 2010 as the world’s worst.
He was known as “El Comandante” by his admirers. They called him a revolutionary on par with Che Guevara, Simon Bolivar and Fidel Castro.
What you think of the man might depend on where you live and whether you’re rich or poor. In time, history will decide.