Venezuela is a South American country rich in natural resources, especially oil. In fact, outside of the Middle East it is the number one supplier of oil to the world. Despite that, during the latter half of the twentieth century the country experienced a devastating recession (decline in the economy), the majority of Venezuelans lived in poverty, and most of the country's power was held by a handful of the elite. When former paratrooper Hugo Chávez took over the presidency in 1998 he promised widespread change; he set about establishing a multitude of reforms, including literacy campaigns, subsidized food programs, land redistribution, and political party reorganization. As a result, the charismatic Chávez attracted legions of loyal fans among the Venezuelan lower classes, which angered the wealthy business class. Venezuela essentially became a country divided, and Chávez's opposition vowed to remove him from power at all costs. Chávez, however, has proved to be unstoppable. He was reelected by an overwhelming majority in 2000, survived an attempted takeover in 2002, and emerged victorious from a recall vote in August 2004.
Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias was born on July 28, 1954, in Sabaneta, Venezuela, a small farming village located in the western state of Barinas. Even though both of his parents were school-teachers, the family, like most Venezuelans, was poor and struggled to make ends meet. Eventually Chávez's father, Hugo de los Reyes, gained political power when he became regional director of education and later the governor of Barinas.
Young Chávez escaped a life of poverty thanks to his skill as a baseball player. Baseball is the leading sport in Venezuela. The country has major leagues and national tournaments just like in the United States. There are also several competitions in which players from Central and South American countries participate. Following high school the talented player was given a scholarship to the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences, a prestigious college, where he earned a degree in military science and engineering. From there Chávez joined the army and quickly rose through the ranks to become head of an elite paratrooper unit.
While in the army Chávez was troubled by the corruption he saw among high-ranking military officers. Actually, the regime in power at the time, headed by Carlos Andrés Peérez (1922–), was notorious for widespread bribery and
"I am convinced that the path to a new, better and possible world is not capitalism, the path is socialism."
payoffs. Deciding to take a stand, Chávez organized a group of like-minded soldiers and secretly formed an anticorruption organization called the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement. In 1992, Chávez and his band of over twelve thousand attempted to overthrow the Pérez government in a bloody coup that cost hundreds of lives. Although the coup was unsuccessful and Chávez ended up going to prison for the next two years, he became a national hero thanks to the media. In televised broadcasts he came across as a passionate speaker determined to make a change.
When Chávez was released from prison two years later, a new president was at the helm, but the plight of Venezuelans was no better. Prices of goods and unemployment were high, 80 percent of the population was living in poverty, the foreign debt was staggering, and corruption among government officials continued unchecked. Chávez decided to make a bid for the presidency and formed the Polo Patriotico (Patriotic Pole), which was composed of fourteen small political parties representing a wide variety of views. Disillusioned by the current administration, and tired of having political power in the hands of the upper classes, millions of poor Venezuelans rallied in support of Chávez, who they called El Comandanté (The Commander).
In rousing speeches Chávez condemned the two major political parties of Venezuela, accusing leaders of dishonesty, bowing to foreign investors, and mismanaging the country's oil revenues. He stressed that the nation was desperate for change and he vowed that changes would be made if he was elected. For example, he promised to put an end to government corruption and to revamp the Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-run oil company, which was responsible for exporting billions of barrels of oil per year. Hundreds of thousands of citizens attended political rallies where the charismatic Chávez delivered speeches peppered with quotes from the Bible and from his hero Simon Bolívar (1783–1830), the nineteenth-century revolutionary leader of Venezuela.
On December 6, 1998, Chávez was elected president by 56 percent of the vote, becoming the youngest elected president in Venezuelan history. On the night of his win, El Comandanté addressed the throngs of people in the streets, and according to U.S. News … World Report, he shouted, "You are the future owners of Venezuela." He went on to tell reporters, "People voted for a profound transformation, and they will have one." The transformation began immediately as Chaévez set about overhauling the entire government structure of Venezuela.
He formed a constitutional assembly that drastically reduced the powers of Congress; the assembly also reviewed the judicial branch in an attempt to rid the courts of corrupt judges. In the biggest move, Chaévez and his assembly reworked the Venezuelan constitution; the new version was approved by 75 percent of voters on December 15, 1999. The changes enacted were broad in scope: The country's name was changed to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela; the term of office of the president was extended from five to six years; the Congress was replaced by a unicameral (single body) National Assembly; and the power of political parties was slashed. Social reforms were also added, including free university-level education.
The new constitution called for elections to be held in 2000. Chávez easily won the presidency with 60 percent of the vote; his supporters also won the majority of seats in the new unicameral assembly. As a result, Chaévez succeeded in concentrating power in his own hands—and he stretched that power to the limit. In 2001 he passed a set of forty-nine economic laws, including the Hydrocarbons Law, which brought control of the PDVSA under the direction of the Minister of Energy, who, of course, was part of Chaévez's cabinet. The most dramatic law was a land reform program called the Ley de Tierras (Land Law). At the time nearly 70 percent of Venezuela's farmable land was owned by less than 3 percent of the population. In addition, according to national statistics, only 4 percent of useable land was being farmed. Under the new law, land that was not being used would be given to poor farmers.
Wealthy landowners and middle-class business owners were outraged, fearing that privately held property would be confiscated by the government. Chávez further angered wealthy Venezuelans in two more ways: He attempted to consolidate all existing labor unions into one state-controlled Bolivarian Labor Force; and he was using oil revenues to implement his many social programs. Such programs included literacy campaigns in the poorest regions of the country, new health clinics, and paved roads in rural areas. The most high-profile programs were the Chavista Missions, outreach programs directed at groups of citizens who had historically been ignored. For example, a public health mission called Barrio Adentro employed over ten thousand doctors dedicated to serving in areas of Venezuela where no doctors were available before.
Chávez kept in contact with his adoring public thorough his weekly radio broadcast, Alo President, a call-in program where he answered questions about public policy and helped average citizens with their problems. On the other hand, the press became increasingly wary of the new president when, in an attempt to gain overall control, he tried to pass laws that would censor the media. The opposition accused Chávez of going too far; they also claimed he was a kind of diablo, or devil, who was undermining the democratic state of Venezuela. In an interview with Lally Weymouth, Chávez dismissed such charges: "Some sectors, from ignorance or prejudice, keep saying that in Venezuela there is a process of concentration of power underway. The truth is we are doing away with an authoritarian model that was disguised as a democracy. Representative democracy failed completely in the past. Party leaders who said they represented the people, betrayed them. I want you to understand the battle we are waging. It's a revolution."
By 2002, despite Chávez's many social reforms, the economy of Venezuela was in worse shape than it was in 1998 when he first took office. Unemployment rates were still in the double digits and decreasing oil prices were putting a strain on the national budget. To make matters worse Chávez had essentially cornered himself: He could not cut social spending without losing the support of the lower classes and he could not cut military spending without losing the loyalty of his military troops. In mid-2002, with no economic policy forthcoming, groups of protesters began storming the streets of Caracas, the nation's capital. The protests were military-backed, but some demonstrators were average citizens who banged pots and pans and called for Chávez to resign.
During the week of April 8, 2002, the protests took a violent turn. On April 11, fighting broke out between protesters, the national guard (controlled by Chávez), and the military police, which was controlled by the opposition. Guns were fired, resulting in the deaths of a least seventeen people; hundreds more were wounded. Feeling he had no choice, Chávez resigned on April 12, and was taken into custody by members of Fedecámaras, Venezuela's business federation. That same day the president of Fedecámaras, Pedro Carmona Estanga, took over leadership of the country. He disbanded the National Assembly and called for a presidential election during the coming year. Support for El Comandanté, however, was still strong. Thousands took to the streets, rioting, looting, and demanding that Chávez be reinstated. On April 14, Carmona resigned, thus ending the shortest presidency in Venezuelan history.
Although Chávez returned to power only two days after being ousted, his victory was short-lived. Problems continued to plague his presidency throughout 2002, and they reached a climax in December when oil workers went on strike. The country virtually stopped all oil exports during the two-month ordeal, sending the Venezuelan economy into a tailspin from which it never fully recovered. In retaliation Chávez fired the upper management of the PDVSA, as well as eighteen thousand PDVSA employees. He replaced the workers with his own associates and appointed Ali Rodriguez, a former revolutionary from the 1960s, to act as chief executive officer of the PDVSA.
Chávez's actions further fueled the animosity of the opposition, who continued to claim that although he was democratically elected, Chávez was becoming a dangerous dictator who needed to be stopped. They pointed to his mismanagement of domestic policies, but also to his questionable foreign policy. The international community, in general, viewed Chávez with disapproval when he virtually overhauled the political workings of Venezuela in 1999. Suspicions continued to grow when Chávez began to seek alliances with controversial dictators, including Fidel Castro (c. 1927–) of Cuba and Saddam Hussein (1937–) of Iraq. In particular, the relationship between Venezuela and the United States had become shaky at best. During the administrations of both Bill Clinton (1946–) and George W. Bush (1946–), Chávez spoke out publicly against U.S. economic and foreign policies. He also denounced the United States as being an imperialist power, meaning the United States often inserted its influence—either economic or military—in areas of the world where help was not asked for or needed.
By 2003 Chávez's opposition had grown into a coalition called the Democratic Coordinating Committee, which included the Fedecámaras and many of Venezuela's unions. Once again the opposition decided to try and remove the president from power—this time through legal means. Venezuela's constitution, rewritten by Chávez and his assembly, contained a clause allowing the population to recall elected officials, including the president. The opposition spend months collecting over three million signatures on a petition calling for Chávez's removal from office. They presented the petition to Venezuela's National Electoral Council in November of 2003.
Although anti-Chávez demonstrations were waged from late 2003 until voting took place in August, the Venezuelan president still maintained a strong following among the lower classes, which accounted for about eighteen or nineteen million voters. Chávez himself was not silent during this period, traveling across the country on a campaign trail and using the slogan "Chávez no se vá" (Chávez will not go). On August 15, 2004, a record number of the population turned out to vote, so many that officials extended the polling hours until after midnight. Streams of people waited for hours to vote, standing in lines that sometimes stretched for over half a mile. The wait, however, did not bother most citizens. As one Venezuelan told Elizabeth DiNovella, a reporter for the Progressive, "We are defending our right to democracy."
When all the ballots were tallied Hugo Chávez remained president, taking 59 percent of the vote. On the night of his win, a triumphant Chávez remarked to DiNovella, "The no of the campaign is the no of Cristo [Christ] against imperialism. It's the no of Christ against leaving behind the poor. This is an ancient no. And today it is reborn by this flood of people." But the opposition was far from satisfied, and after the election they cried fraud, making accusations that there had been discrepancies both in voter registration and at the polls.
The entire process, however, had been overseen by two impartial groups: the Carter Center, headed by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter (1947–), and the Organization of American States. In statements made during a press conference on August 17, and reported in the the Progressive, Carter claimed that Chávez had won the election fair and square:
Just as Venezuela's constitution contains a clause allowing a president to be recalled from office, so too, does the U.S. Constitution. In the United States, however, the process is started with something called impeachment and American citizens are not given the opportunity to vote. According to Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, "The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors." Impeachment does not mean removal from office; it refers to serious charges brought against an official that may lead to his removal from office.
According to the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives has the sole power to bring impeachment charges against the president. If the majority of representatives pass the impeachment resolution, meaning they feel the charges are justified, the matter is turned over to the Senate. In the Senate there is a trial, which is presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. After all testimony is heard, a vote is taken. If two-thirds of the Senate finds the president guilty as charged, he is impeached. If an official is found to be guilty he may be banned from ever running for public office again, and depending on the "crime," he may be tried in a regular court of law.
In U.S. history only two presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives: Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) in 1868 and Bill Clinton (1946–) in 1998. Johnson was accused of, among other things, misuse of the presidential veto power and election tampering. In the Senate Johnson came one vote short of being found guilty and so remained president. Bill Clinton was found guilty by representatives of committing perjury (lying) during a grand jury trial and of obstructing justice. In 1999, the Senate voted him innocent on all charges.
"We have no reason to doubt the integrity of the electoral system or the accuracy of the referendum results. There is no evidence of fraud, and any allegations of fraud are completely unwarranted."
Although Hugo Chávez emerged victorious from his 2004 recall election, Venezuela emerged as a country clearly divided. According to Fred Rosen in a NACLA Report on the Americas, no political middle ground exists: citizens are either adamantly pro-Chávez or intensely anti-Chávez. Such division will make the remaining two years of his presidency very difficult ones.
In addition, Chávez continues to foster a hostile relationship with many Western countries, especially the United States. At a January 2005 world conference held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Venezuelan leader spoke out vehemently against the Bush administration, and talked of an "open aggression" between the two nations. He claimed, however, that the aggression was directed at Venezuela from the United States. Several weeks prior to the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (1954–) asserted that the Venezuelan leader was "a negative force in the region." Chávez said that such claims were unfounded. "The most negative force in the world today," Chávez contended, "is the government of the United States."
Chávez ended his speech on a positive note, echoing the sentiments with which he began his political career: "We must start talking again about equality." And a month later, it seemed that perhaps small steps were being taken toward healing relations between Venezuela and the United States. According to CNN.com, while speaking to an assembly of the Organization of American States, Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez said that Venezuela "had only one enemy: poverty." "We extend our hand in friendship," Rodriguez added, "since we know that peace, based on mutual respect, is the best path toward achieving prosperity."
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Weymouth, Lally. "The Battle We Are Waging: Interview with Hugo Chavez." (October 23, 2000): p. 45.
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