CARACAS, Venezuela - Hugo Chavez, a former tank commander turned populist politician who used Venezuela's oil riches to pursue his vision of socialism and challenge the U.S., died Tuesday from complications related to cancer.
With Mr. Chavez just months into his fourth term, his death plunged Venezuela into political uncertainty. Vice President Nicolas Maduro will succeed Mr. Chavez as interim president, but must hold a new election within 30 days, according to the constitution.
It seems likely Mr. Maduro will face off against opposition governor Henrique Capriles, who lost to Mr. Chavez in October's presidential election, but retained his governor's seat during an election in December.
Mr. Chavez's death is a blow to populist governments in the region, including those of Bolivia and Ecuador, which he led in a perennial campaign against American hegemony. His death could have major economic and political repercussions for Cuba, which receives billions in virtually free oil from Venezuela.
Domestically, Mr. Chavez leaves behind a deeply divided country with an economy in disarray, barely kept afloat by high oil prices.
For almost half his countrymen, Mr. Chavez was anathema, an authoritarian who fueled class hatred as he pursued what he called his Bolivarian Revolution. But for a majority of Venezuelans, Mr. Chavez was a messiah.
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."
A silver-tongued preacher-in-uniform, Mr. Chavez was the latest in a long line of military caudillos, or strongmen, who have left their mark in Latin America since the region gained independence from Spain and Portugal in the 19th century.
After failing to reach power through a military coup in 1992, Mr. Chavez proclaimed himself a democrat. But once in power, he proved difficult 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."
Mr. Chavez expropriated thousands of farms and businesses, and transformed the state oil company into a behemoth that did everything from build houses to distribute food. He saddled Venezuela with high inflation, some $80 billion in foreign debt despite high oil prices, and made it even more dependent on oil.
Mr. Chavez's biggest achievement, one even his detractors will admit, was to end the social and political exclusion of a large number of Venezuela's 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.
Some studies have indicated that the programs have had little effect on reducing poverty or eliminating its structural factors. Crime in the barrios has risen and public schools remain far behind countries with comparable per-capita income.
"He leaves the country in a shambles," said Moises Naim, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. "Never has a Latin American leader wasted so much money, misspent so many resources and misused such power. Chavez could have transformed the country, but instead used those resources to build a personality cult, push a failed ideology and decimate the country's economy."
Venezuela's oil billions gave Mr. Chavez a chance to strut on the world's stage. He delighted in tweaking 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, that included Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, to counter U.S. influence in the region. A U.S. diplomat called it Mr. Chavez'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. Chavez'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.
"He was a talker, a dancer, charming--the life of the party," said Rafael Simon Jimenez, former president of the National Assembly and a childhood friend of Mr. Chavez.
Mr. Chavez was born in 1954 in the dusty town of Sabaleta, in the western state of Barinas, a land of hot and humid plains, known as the llanos, home to Venezuela's cowboys, a land where the line between history and myth is blurred.
He was the second of six sons fathered by a rural schoolteacher and apparatchik of the conservative Christian Democratic Party, Copei. The family struggled economically, and was a matriarchy run by Hugo's mother, Elena, with whom Mr. Chavez had a difficult relationship, acquaintances say. "He told me she used to lock him up in the closet," said Nedo Paniz, an early backer of Mr. Chavez.
As children, Hugo and his older brother Adan lived with their grandmother, Rosa Inez, whom Mr. Chavez acknowledged as the most important person in his life. Rosa filled young Hugo's head with stories about his great-grandfather, a highwayman by the name of Maizanta, whom local historians had cast in the style of a Robin Hood.
Mr. Chavez also drew inspiration from Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century patriot who liberated Venezuela and five other Latin American countries from Spain. Mr. Chavez, like Bolivar, 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.
As a youth, Mr. Chavez wanted to be a major-league baseball player, said Mr. Jimenez, who was head of the local Communist Youth in the school Mr. Chavez attended in Barinas. Mr. Paniz said Mr. Chavez told him he joined the military after a recruiter said the army had a sports program that could pave the way to the U.S. major leagues.
In 1975, he graduated near the top of his class from Venezuela's military academy. As president, Mr. Chavez often donned the uniform and red beret of Venezuela's paratroopers, though he spent his career with the tank division. In government, he showed a persistent distrust of civilians and often relied on army officers to run key ministries.
During his time in the army, Venezuela underwent wrenching change. An oil boom that began under populist President Carlos Andres Perez turned into a bust. Popular discontent smoldered.
The military had long been targeted for penetration by would-be revolutionaries who hoped to duplicate military coups by left-wing army officers in Panama and Peru.
Influenced by the writings of people ranging from Gadhafi to revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Mr. Chavez discovered a talent for conspiracy. In 1983, he formed a secret cell with like-minded officers.
By then a captain, Mr. Chavez and three other officers swore an oath under a tree where Bolivar had made camp during the war of independence. Paraphrasing Bolivar's words, they swore to not to rest until they had "broken the chains of the powerful that oppress us."
In 1989, Mr. Perez, in his second term, enacted pro-market reforms. A fuel-price increase announced in February provoked rioting and looting in Caracas, and hundreds of people were killed before order was restored. The "Caracazo," as it became known, deeply affected the army.
On Feb. 4, 1989, army units under Mr. Chavez's command moved on Caracas. Mr. Chavez attacked the presidential palace. But Mr. Perez escaped and broadcast a speech from a television station. Mr. Chavez was soon surrounded.
Mr. Chavez, dressed in red beret and fatigues, was put on television to persuade fellow rebels to surrender. It was his introduction to the national stage, and he seized it with aplomb, invoking Bolivar and telling viewers that his attempts to transform the country had failed "por ahora"--for now.
Convicted of rebellion, Mr. Chavez served two years in prison before his sentence was commuted in 1994. He became a magnet for Venezuelans who craved a strong hand to sweep away endemic corruption.
Mr. Chavez traveled to Cuba for a meeting with Fidel Castro, quickly becoming enthralled with the Cuban leader. While Mr. Chavez saw Mr. Castro as a father figure, Mr. Castro saw Mr. Chavez as a foil through which he could continue challenging the U.S.
In 1998, Mr. Chavez ran for president. He won in a landslide, even carrying Country Club, Caracas's ritziest suburb.
Months after assuming power, he called a constitutional convention that rewrote Venezuela's charter to allow re-election. A year later, he ran again and won election under the new constitution.
But Venezuela's middle class soon began to fear its would-be savior, scared off by Mr. Chavez's growing class-warfare rhetoric, and attempts to pass laws pushing everything from state control of education to land reform.
In April 2002, as a massive anti-Chavez demonstration headed for the presidential palace, army officers refused the president's order to fire on the protesters, forced him to resign, and handed power to Pedro Carmona, head of Venezuela's main business group.
Copyright (c) 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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