Hugo Chavez, a former military tank commander who was born poor turned populist politician who used the oil riches of Venezuela to pursue his socialist vision and was a thorn in the side of the United States, died Tuesday after battling cancer for months at the age of 58.
Chavez had just been elected for a fourth term, and his death leaves behind a country with a uncertain political future. Although his Vice President Nicolas Maduro will succeed him as interim president, a new election must hold within the next 30 days as demanded by the constitution.
It is speculated that Maduro will run against Chavez’s opponent in the October presidential elections, Henrique Cardoso who won a governorship seat in December.
The death of Chavez is a blow to populist governments in the Latin American region, such as those of Bolivia and Ecuador, which he led in a perennial campaign against American hegemony. His death could also have major political and ec0nomic impact in Cuba, which receives billions in virtually free oil from Venezuela.
At home, Chavez leaves behind a country deeply divided with an economy barely kept floating by oil prices.
While almost half his countrymen viewed him as an anathema and authoritarian who fuelled class hatred as he pursued his ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, he was a messiah to majority of Venezuelans..
He was voted into power in 1998 on a tide of citizen disgust with the corruption of democratically elected politicians who had ruled Venezuela for three decades. He went on to dominate the country, which boasts the world’s largest oil reserves, for the past 14 years, spending billions to create what he called “21st-century socialism.”
An excellent salesman in uniform, Chavez was the latest in a long line of military strongmen who have shaped Latin America since the region got independence from Spain and Portugal in the 19th century.
Chavez had tried to get power in 1992 through a military coup and failed. It was after that he declared himself a democrat, but the moment he got into power, he became hard to remove. He changed the constitution twice to allow continuous re-election. He also used rhetoric to sharpen class divisions, pitting millions of poor Venezuelans against a prosperous middle and upper class, which he scornfully called “the squalid ones.”
Chavez seized thousands of farms and businesses, and transformed the state oil company into a behemoth that was involved in everything from building houses to distributing food. He saddled Venezuela with high inflation, about $80billion in debt despite high oil prices, and made it even more dependent on oil.
However, one of his biggest achievements, one even his political opponents would admit, was to end the social and economic exclusion of the poor. He spent billions of dollars on his “Missions”—well-publicized educational, health and welfare programs aimed at the millions who live in cement-block slums on the hillsides surrounding Caracas and other cities.
Venezuela’s oil billions gave Mr. Chávez influence on the world’s stage. He delighted in annoying the U.S., inviting Libya’s late Moammar Gadhafi and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Caracas. He supplied Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with fuel oil as the Syrian leader killed thousands of his own countrymen.
He forged a bond with a leftist crew of Latin American countries, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, which included Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, to counter U.S. influence in the region. A U.S. diplomat called it Chávez’s “Axis of Annoyance.”
At home, he controlled Venezuela’s court system, its electoral authorities and its congress. He dominated the media, kicking one television channel off the air and intimidating others. He was omnipresent on TV stations as well as radio networks, which he forced to carry his hours-long speeches nearly every week.
Mr. Chávez’s ability to forge a direct, emotional link with Venezuela’s poor through television was central to his political success. Most Sundays, in a trademark half-sermon, half-variety show, the president joked, sang, railed against the U.S., and announced expropriations of businesses ranging from some of the country’s largest companies to a small jewelry shop.
Chávez also drew inspiration from Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century patriot who liberated Venezuela and five other Latin American countries from Spain. Mr. Chávez, like Bolívar, dreamed of uniting Latin America. One of his first acts as president was to change the country’s official name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.His other influences included Libya’s Gaddafi and the revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
Chavez leaves behind a legacy of a man who rose from nothing to becoming the president of the country, surviving coups while challenging the influence of the United States on the region.