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11th March 2013

Obituary: Hugo Chávez

Andres Porras Chaves looks back on the life of the contentious figure

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, President of Venezuela from 1999 and leader of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), died from cancer on the 5th of March 2013 in Caracas; He was 58 years old. Hugo Chavez was one of the most influential Latin American politicians of the 21st Century

Born on 28 July 1954, in the rural village Sabanetas, Chávez was born to a lower middle class family of Amerindian, Afro-Venezuelan and Spanish descent. The second of seven children, Chávez was raised mainly by his grandmother Rosa Inés, a devout Catholic. The poverty he experienced during his childhood made him committed to social justice from an early age.

At 17 he entered the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences in Caracas, and in 1976, following his graduation, he joined the military. During this period he read the works of Karl Marx, Lenin and Ché Guevara, and became interested in the figure of 19th-century Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar, among others. In 1982 he founded the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR-200), a secretive cell within the army that rejected both neoliberalism (at the time widely applied in Latin America) and Soviet communism.

On 4 February 1992, the MBR-200, led by Chávez, attempted a coup d’état known as Operation Zamora against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, shortly after the Caracazo massacre (when hundreds of people protesting against Pérez’s neoliberal reforms were killed by the military). The coup failed, ending with Chávez giving a speech on national television: “Comrades: unfortunately, for now, the objectives we had set for ourselves were not achieved in the capital city. That is, those of us here in Caracas did not seize power. Where you are, you have performed very well, but now is the time for a reflection. New opportunities will arise and the country has to head definitively toward a better future”. His statement that he had failed ‘for now’ was widely remarked and he became a popular idol, especially for the lower classes.

He and other members of the MBR-200 were sent to prison, released in 1994 by President Rafael Caldera. After being released, Chávez went on a 100-day tour around the country to promote his social cause, gaining support from local-based newspapers and media. In 1997 he created the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), with which he ran up for the 1998 Venezuelan presidential election, which he won with more than 55% of the votes.

Chavez’s election was the starting point for a wave of left wing governments in Latin America (the so-called “pink tide”). During his years in office, he passed a new Constitution that included rights for the indigenous people and women, environmental protection and public access to education, health, housing and food. He opposed US foreign policy, supported the Palestinian cause and established strong links with Cuba (describing Fidel Castro as being like a father to him). Other South American countries with left-wing governments, and some controversial Arab leaders, made him become quite a contentious political figure. Chávez’s government suffered a failed coup d’état attempt in 2002.

Chávez had great impact on the political structures of South America, with Venezuela playing a key role in the creation of the ALBA alliance of Latin American nations, the Bank of the South and the television network TeleSUR. In Venezuela, he encouraged non-profit community media and created the Bolivarian Missions, which provided public services. During Chávez’s government, poverty and illiteracy were significantly reduced, according to statistics by the UN and UNESCO.

Despite several criticisms by the political opposition in Venezuela and different international organisations, Chávez passed away after winning with absolute majority all four presidential elections he ran up for. Seven days of mourning have been announced in Venezuela, and a state funeral will be held in Caracas on 8 March.

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