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Hugo Chavez: Charismatic leader who raised Venezuela's profile

Wednesday March 06, 2013 08:27:15 AM, IANS

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London: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died after battling cancer, was a tough and charismatic leader, whose idiosyncratic brand of socialism gave hope to the poorest people in the Latin American country.

According to the BBC, his strident criticism of the US won him many friends among the political leaders in Latin America and he effectively used his country's vast oil reserves to boost Venezuela's international clout.

But to his political opponents, he was the worst type of autocrat, intent on building a one-party state and ruthlessly clamping down on any who opposed him.

Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born July 28, 1954 in the state of Barinas. He was one of seven children. His parents were both school teachers and the family lived in relative poverty.

He attended the Daniel O'Leary High School in Barinas city before going to the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences in the capital, Caracas where, he later said, he found his true vocation.

He found time to study the lives of the 19th Century South American revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar and Che Guevara.

He graduated in 1975 and had already begun to form political ideas that he would later put into practice as president, including the belief that the military had a duty to step in if a civilian government was deemed to have failed to protect the poorest in society.

He was posted to one of the many counter-insurgency units tackling Marxist groups bent on overthrowing the presidency of Carlos Andres Perez.

In 1981, he was assigned to teach at the military academy where he had been a student and found himself in a position to indoctrinate the next generation of army officers with his political ideas, BBC said.

In 1992, he led an attempt to overthrow the government of Perez, amid growing anger at economic austerity measures that had led to widespread protests.

A revolt by members of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement claimed 18 lives before Colonel Chavez gave himself up.

He was languishing in a military jail when his associates tried again to seize power nine months later.

The second coup attempt in November 1992 was crushed as well.

Chavez spent two years in prison before relaunching his party as the Movement of the Fifth Republic, making the transition from soldier to politician.

He spent time canvassing and found strong support and friendship from Cuba's revolutionary president, Fidel Castro.

Chavez believed in overthrowing the government by force but was persuaded to change his mind and instead became a candidate in the 1998 presidential elections.

Venezuela had enjoyed an unbroken period of democratic government since 1958, but the two main parties, which had alternated in power, stood accused of presiding over a corrupt system and squandering the country's vast oil wealth.

Chavez promised "revolutionary" social policies, and constantly abused the "predatory oligarchs" of the establishment as corrupt servants of international capital.

He quickly gained widespread support, not just from the poorest in Venezuelan society but also from a middle class which had seen its standards of living eroded by economic mismanagement.

Despite the revolutionary rhetoric he employed during the campaign, his first government set out on a relatively moderate path, appointing a number of conservative figures.

He made a positive effort to encourage investment from global corporations, and also began a programme of social reform, setting up free medical care and subsidised food for the poor.

To stay in touch with his people, Chavez set up weekly shows on radio and television where he explained his policies and encouraged citizens to phone in and question him directly.

In 1999, he proposed setting up a new constitutional assembly, gaining overwhelming support for the idea in a public referendum.

In subsequent elections to the new body, Chavez supporters won 95 percent of the seats.

Chavez won the presidential elections of 2000 but soon faced opposition both from outside and inside Venezuela.

Relations with the US reached a low when he accused it of "fighting terror with terror" during the war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack on the US.

Opposition inside the country came from middle class groups who had seen their political power eroded by Chavez and who accused him of steering the country towards a one-party state.

The 2006 presidential elections saw Chavez win again. He announced that his revolutionary policies would now be expanded.

He brought forward proposals that would allow him to stand for the presidency indefinitely, a measure that was approved in a referendum.

He also created economic and political ties with newly elected left-wing leaders in other South American countries.

Relations with the US remained strained. But Chavez congratulated US President Barack Obama on his election victory in November 2008.

"I am not Obama's enemy but it's difficult not to see imperialism in Washington," he told the BBC. "Those who don't see it, don't want to see it, like the ostrich."

Hugo Chavez started as a reforming president, intent on addressing the inequalities in Venezuelan society giving food, medical care and, above all, a political voice to the poor.

Venezuela today has the fairest income distribution in Latin America, BBC said.

But Chavez failed to implement a long-term solution for the country's economic problems. Violent crime rose during his time in office, while government corruption continued.

Chavez was convinced that his destiny was to rule Venezuela and be a regional leader who could counteract US influence in Latin America.

Later, Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who met and travelled with Chavez before he took office for the first time, said it was like talking to two contrary men.

"One to whom inveterate luck has granted the the chance to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could go down in history as just another despot."



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