President Hugo Chávez
Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías (born July 28, 1954) has been the President of Venezuela since 1999. A former paratroop colonel, Chávez is a left-wing populist. With policies he claims are inspired by the life and ideas of Simón Bolívar (see bolivarianism), he has won the support of Venezuela's impoverished majority; at the same time, those policies have met with increasing hostility from many among the middle and upper classes, culminating in a failed coup d'état in 2002 and a failed recall referendum in 2004.
Chávez is the son of Hugo de los Reyes Chávez (a former regional director of education and a former member of the conservative Social Christian Party, who is the current governor of Barinas State), and Elena Frías de Chávez. Chávez has four children of his own: Rosa Virginia, María Gabriela, Hugo Rafael, and Rosinés. He was married twice and is currently separated from his second wife, Marisabel Rodríguez de Chávez.
He graduated from the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences on July 5, 1975, after being awarded master's degrees in military sciences and engineering. He continued his education by following a master's degree in political sciences at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, which he did not finish according to his university tutor and the head of the Political Science school.
An ex-paratrooper, Chávez came to prominence after heading a failed military coup on February 4, 1992 against then President Carlos Andrés Pérez, in which hundreds were killed. Pérez had presided over unpopular IMF austerity measures that led to protests in 1989, which he brutally suppressed, leaving hundreds dead. After spending two years in prison, Chavez was pardoned by former President Rafael Caldera, and emerged as a politician, organizing a new political party called the Movement for the Fifth Republic.
Early presidency 1998–2001
Chávez won the presidential election on December 6, 1998 by the largest percent of voters (56.2%) in four decades, running on an anti-corruption and anti-poverty platform, and condemning the two major parties that had dominated Venezuelan politics since 1958 (see: Venezuelan presidential election, 1998).
With Chávez's emergence, there has been a sweeping social and economic revamping in Venezuela. Traditionally, lighter skinned groups have held economic and political sway over this oil-rich nation. All of the five major TV networks, and most major newspapers, oppose him, but a small minority of the media is said to still support him. Chávez claims the opposition media is controlled by the interests which oppose him, whereas the media accuse him of having intimidated journalists with his pronouncements and of sending gangs to threaten journalists with physical violence. The Venezuelan business community, represented by the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce (Fedecámaras), opposes Chávez and his policies deeply, and the largest labor federation joined them.
Chávez has launched sweeping land and education reforms as a way of offsetting the balance between the country's élites and masses, of which an estimated 80% of the populace is living in poverty. Soon after taking office, for instance, the president turned part of his presidential palace into a high school for homeless children, a move his critics claim was in conjunction with his political agenda. He has also implemented widespread immunization and food distribution programs for children, mostly nonexistent under previous Venezuelan presidencies. These programs have been criticized as inefficient and incomplete by opposition figures but are widely heralded and appreciated by Chávez backers. Wealthy businesses, who had not been required to pay taxes previously, are now required to do so. In the process, the country has become deeply polarized, as Chávez, a self-described "Robin Hood" has tried to create the ideal level playing field by re-engineering the status quo, namely, taking from the wealthy and redistributing to the poor.
Shortly after taking office on February 2, 1999, Chávez embarked on a series of sweeping changes to the Venezuelan government. He organized a series of referenda; the first authorized re-writing the Venezuelan constitution. The second selected delegates to a new Constitutional Assembly, distinct from his country's legislature, to do the re-writing. Chávez's initial widespread popularity allowed supporters to win 120 of the 131 assembly seats.
In August 1999, the assembly set up a "judicial emergency committee" with the power to remove judges without consulting any other branch of government. In the same month, the assembly declared a "legislative emergency." A seven-member committee was created to perform congressional functions, including law-making. The Constitutional Assembly prohibited the Congress from holding meetings of any sort. In a national radio address quoted in The New York Times, Chávez warned Venezuelans not to obey opposition officials, stating that "we can intervene in any police force in any municipality, because we are not going to permit any tumult or uproar. Order has arrived in Venezuela."
The new constitution renamed the country to the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela", after South American independence hero Simón Bolívar. It increased the presidential term of office to six years, while providing for a new procedure to recall a president and providing term limits to the president of two terms. It was approved in a nationwide referendum held in December 1999. Elections for the new, unicameral legislature were held in July 2000. During the same election, Chávez stood for re-election. Chávez supporters won roughly 60% of the seats in the new unicameral assembly and Chavez himself was reelected (see Venezuelan presidential election, 2000).
In November 2000, he backed a bill through the legislature allowing him to rule by decree for one year. In December 2000 there was another set of elections. During elections for local officials, Chávez added a referendum on dissolving Venezuela's labor unions. Though it is unclear what authority was invoked, he attempted to consolidate all Venezuelan labor unions into a single, state-controlled Bolivarian Labor Force.
In November 2001, Chávez passed a set of 49 laws by decrees, shortly before the enabling law expired. One of the most controversial of these laws was the Ley de Tierras ("Land Law"), which created the Plan Zamora to enact land reforms in Venezuelan agriculture: taxing unused landholdings, expropriating unused private lands (with compensation), and giving inheritable, unsellable land grants to small farmers and farm collectives. Some of the wealthiest people in Venezuela own enormous ranches or estates that are mostly unused, while the farmers and the poor have to invade small properties to live. Fedecámaras vehemently opposed the 49 laws and called for a general business strike on December 10, 2001.
2002: Coup attempt against Chávez
Main article: Venezuelan coup attempt of 2002
Hugo Chávez, surrounded by resolute supporters, makes a dramatic return to power on April 12
after the collapse of the first Latin American coup of the 21st century.
Chávez was briefly deposed and arrested on April 12, 2002, after commander in chief Lucas Rincon Romero announced to the nation that Chavez had resigned (http://www.11abril.com/index/videos/abril_2002_1.asp), Fedecámaras president Pedro Carmona was appointed by the military ("Junta Militar") as interim president. This event generated a widespread uprising in support of Chávez that was repressed by the Metropolitan Police. A sentence (http://www.tsj.gov.ve/decisiones/tplen/agosto/sentencia%20de%20los%20militares.htm) of the Plenary Hall of Venezuela's Sureme Tribunal of Justice acquitted the generals in charge of the alleged 'coup' establishing that what took place was not a 'coup' but a "vacuum of power" that had been generated by the announcement of Chavez' resignation made by Gral. Lucas Rincon Romero. According to an arrest notice contained in the sentence Chavez was not held in a secret place but in a cell in Fort Tiuna. The unconstitutional actions of Pedro Carmona, led the very same military command to remove him and devolve power to Chavez.
On April 9, 2002, Venezuela's largest union federation, the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), led by Carlos Ortega Carvajal (who was not present at Pedro Carmona's "inauguration" but greeted him the next morning at the Palace), called for a two-day general strike. Fedecámaras joined the strike and called on all of its affiliated businesses to close for 48 hours. (Public Film at Edonkey p2p network (Video Link) (http://www.filedonkey.com/url.html?md4=a8a6df74d90b639205b0aee14348cdbe))
An estimated million people marched to the headquarters of Venezuela's oil company, PDVSA, in defense of its fired management. The organizers decided to re-route the march to Miraflores, the presidential palace, so as to confront pro-government demonstrators. After violence erupted between demonstrators, the metropolitan police (controlled by the opposition) and national guard (controlled by Chávez), 17 people were killed and more than a hundred wounded, most of them Chávez supporters. Doctors who treated the wounded reported that almost all of them appeared to have been shot from above in a sniper-like fashion.
Chávez has repeatedly stated that he believes that the Bush administration and the CIA orchestrated the coup, and in an interview with Al Jazeera he accused the Israeli Mossad of complicity as well. In September 2003 he refused to travel to the United States to address the United Nations because he received intelligence information that the U.S. government had prepared an assassination attempt against him. On November 23, 2004, while visiting Spain, he accused former Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar of having supported the coup together with the United States. The current foreign minister of Spain, Miguel Angel Moratinos, has corroborated this allegation in a statement made in November 2004. Members of Aznar's defeated People's Party have denied these allegations and called on Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to retract his foreign minister's remarks.  (http://www.newsobserver.com/24hour/world/story/1862579p-9770826c.html)
CIA documents released in November 2004 reveal that the Bush Administration knew that a coup in Venezuela was imminent, contrary to earlier claims by U.S. officials  (http://www.newsday.com/news/nationworld/world/ny-wovene244053424nov24,0,4856696.story?coll=ny-worldnews-headlines). However, no evidence of direct CIA support of the coup or any involvement of the Mossad, which was claimed by Chávez's supporters, could be found.
On November 18, 2004, leading Venezuelan state prosecutor Danilo Anderson was assassinated, shortly before he was scheduled to bring charges against 400 people who participated in the coup  (http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=268480).
For two months from December 2, 2002, the Chávez government was faced with a business strike, led by the oil industry management. As a consequence, Venezuela stopped exporting a daily average of 2,800,000 barrels (450,000 m³) of oil and derivatives and began to require the import of gasoline for internal use. Chávez combated the oil strike by progressively firing about 18,000 PDVSA employees. A court ruling has deemed the dismissal of these workers illegal and has ordered the immediate return of the entire group to their former posts. Nevertheless, Chávez, PDVSA's CEO Alí Rodríguez, and Minister of Mines Rafael Rodríguez have repeatedly expressed that such ruling will not be enforced.
2004: International relations
President Hugo Chávez and Saddam Hussein in 2000
In response to the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004, allegedly with U.S. assistance, Chávez called U.S. President George W. Bush a pendejo ("prick") and threatened to cut off all oil exports to the United States if it took any more action against his country.  (http://www.reuters.com/locales/newsArticle.jsp;:4042a149:0c1a48964cc2b5?type=worldNews&locale=en_IN&storyID=4463411)
In one section of the speech, perhaps in the belief that what he was saying would not be published, he confessed to having generated the PDVSA crisis in order to destroy the existing organization.
Chávez has attracted opposition from the government of the United States through his oil export policies and his public friendship with Cuba. Chávez is a close friend of Fidel Castro; Venezuela is providing Cuba with 53,000 barrels (8,000 m³) of oil a day in exchange of the service of hundreds of physicians, teachers, and other professionals; this has allowed the revitalization of the Cuban economy and the improvement of health and literacy conditions in Venezuela. (BBC) (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/4035787.stm)
He was also the first democratically-elected president to visit Iraqi President Saddam Hussein since the 1991 Gulf War, on August 11, 2000, and strongly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
2004: Movement to remove Chávez in a referendum
See also: Venezuelan recall referendum, 2004
A 'Yes' billboard is seen along a Caracas highway in this August 4
photo: an eyecatching attempt to encourage Venezuelans to vote in favor of the recall referendum.
Chávez supporters march through the streets of Caracas on August 8
, urging a 'No' vote in the upcoming recall.
In August 2003, opposition leaders began the process to recall Chávez, a procedure first allowed in Venezuela in the 1999 constitution. When the opposition presented the National Electoral Council (CNE) with 3.2 million signatures, the CNE rejected the petition by a vote of 3-0 with 2 members abstaining, ruling that signatures collected before the mid-point of Chávez's term were not valid under Venezuelan law. In November, the opposition conducted another signature drive, again presenting over 3 million signatures.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez waves to cheering supporters from the balcony of the Presidential Palace in Caracas after the electoral commission announcement.
The recall vote was held on August 15, 2004. Record numbers of voters turned out, and polling hours had to be extended by at least eight hours. 59.25% of the vote was against the recall, for Chávez remaining in office.
Election observers Jimmy Carter of the Carter Center and Organization of American States Secretary General César Gaviria endorsed the results of Venezuela's recall referendum. Directing his remarks at opposition figures who have made claims of "widespread fraud" in the voting, Carter called on all Venezuelans to accept the results. "Now it's the responsibility of all Venezuelans to accept the results and work together for the future," said Carter.
Nevertheless, a month later, Carter declared that during the recall referendum there had been several irregularities and that the results were not completely trust-worthy. It was also declared that although TV images showed a record number of voters, the results reflected that 40% of the population abstained from voting. A worrying fact for some is that the government has recognized that it used the nation's money to campaign for president Chávez, which can be seen as electoral fraud under Venezuelan law.
2004: Yet another coup in preparation?
In May 2004, Venezuelan state TV reported the capture of 126 Colombians accused of being paramilitaries, near properties belonging to Cuban exile Roberto Alonso, one of the leaders of the Venezuelan opposition group Bloque Democrático, and media magnate Gustavo Cisneros, a Cuban-Venezuelan Chávez opponent and one of the alleged architects of the 2002 coup. According to one of the detainees, they would have been offered 500,000 Colombian pesos to work on the farm, before being informed that they would have to prepare for an attack on a National Guard base, with the goal of stealing weapons to potentially arm a 3,000-strong militia.  (http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2004/583/583p18b.htm)
According to other detainees and the Colombian families of many of them, most of those arrested were apparently unemployed poor peasants, some from the Cúcuta area, many of whom had at some point in their lives done military service in Colombia and thus qualified as reservists. They'd have been promised to work in Venezuela but were later betrayed  (http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/spanish/latin_america/newsid_3698000/3698989.stm). (whether as part of plan from the opposition or a setup by the official state, as some opposition figures have claimed. The situation is still unclear and under investigation in Venezuela). The families of 68 detainees announced to the Colombian press in June 2004 their intention of travelling to Venezuela to argue for their relatives freedom, claiming that they fell to a setup.  (http://noticias.canalrcn.com/noticia.php3?nt=12388). Another relative told the Venezuelan opposition press that the prisoners were being mistreated while in captivity  (http://www.eluniversal.com/movil/13A475161.html). The official press reported a government denial of this claim.
The family of a Venezuelan National Guard Captain arrested and accused of being implicated in the supposed paramilitary plot likewise denounced in the opposition press the possibility of a political persecution against those that would not share the Venezuelan revolutionary process. He was said not to be recognized when he was presented to the Colombian detainees. (http://www.eluniversal.com/2004/07/16/pol_art_16108E.shtml).
Some women and underaged children were also included among those captured suspected paramilitaries. The latter were speedily repatriated to Colombia by Venezuelan authorities  (http://www.terra.com.ve/actualidad/articulo/html/act176707.htm). The alleged paramilitaries were caught wearing Venezuelan Army uniforms and apparently had a single gun in their possession in the immediate area. At least two (other sources speak of between three and five) suspected paramilitary commanders were also reported to be in custody.
Hugo Chávez celebrates the announcement of preliminary results indicating his victory in the Venezuelan recall referendum, 2004 in the Palace of Miraflores in Caracas on August 16
Opposition critics of the official Venezuelan government's version also mention that an attack by such a small number of fighters against a strongly defended Venezuelan military position and/or eventually the palace of President Chávez would amount to certain failure and virtual suicide on the part of those carrying out the alleged operation. Supporters of the government's version point to the claim that the captured men would only be part of a vanguard of allegedly some 3,000 potential operatives that would have been later introduced into the country.
In June 2004, a Cuban Miami TV channel broadcasted a program featuring the Florida-based Comandos F4. Rodolfo Frometa, the Comandos F4 leader, said that his group was ready to carry out violent attacks against the Cuban government. Former Venezuelan army captain Eduardo García described the help he received from Comandos F4 to organize similar violent actions against the Chávez government. According to the TV program maker Randy Alonso, the US government would have recently earmarked $36 million to support such paramilitary groups.  (http://www.counterpunch.org/wire06112004.html) U.S. officials and opposition figures in Venezuela have dismissed this claim.
1 The film crew's report, broadcast on RTÉ's True Lives series under the title Chávez: Inside the Coup, won the Best Information and Current Affairs Production and the Global Television Grand Prize at the Banff Television Festival in Alberta, Canada, on 11 June 2003, beating 82 international productions in 14 categories, chosen from an entry of 900 from 39 countries. The special has been broadcast world-wide, praised by politicians and the media, and led to a fundamental revision in public attitudes as to what really happened in before and during the coup. No US television channel has chosen to broadcast it, but it was aired in select theatres in the fall of 2003 (where it was screened as "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised").
Although many feel the film is manipulative and deceptive (see the petition organized by Chávez's opposition  (http://www.petitiononline.com/gusano03/)), another comprehensive documentary called "Puente Llaguno: Claves de una masacre" (Llaguno Bridge: clues of a massacre) supports with many factual data most of the claims contained in "the Revolution will not be televised".  (http://www.infoadictos.com/ficheros/index.php?dir=VENEZUELA-La%20verdad%20sobre%20Puente%20Llaguno/)