Venezuela's Hugo Chavez Is Dead
The most unsurprising news of the day has just hit, and while we have already had some 20+ rumors on this issue previously, this time it is official:
- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has died, says VP Maduro
- Chavez who ruled Venezuela since 1999, died from cancer at the age of 58
- Venezuela's army chiefs pledge to support President Nicolas Maduro after Hugo Chavez's death
- Special deployment of armed forces announced in Venezuela after death of Hugo Chavez
The solemn announcement:
Time to celebrate Hugo's memory with some more currency devaluation? It is unclear if Goldman's record profits on Venezuela exposure (see How The Glorious Socialist Revolution Generated A 681% Return For Goldman Sachs) are about to snap back with a vengeance.
Below is what appears to be a pre-prepared obit from the Telegraph:
Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela who has died aged 58, was a shrewd demagogue and combined brash but intoxicating rhetorical gifts with a free spending of oil revenues to turn himself into a leading figure on the world stage
Although no intellectual, Chávez was interested in history and in the power of ideas, and had boundless ambition, both for himself and his country, all fuelled by oil money that gushed into his nation’s coffers in the early years of the new millennium. It was a potent mix.
He first came to public attention in February 1992 when, as a young parachute regiment officer, he made a fleeting appearance on Venezuelan television screens during a botched coup attempt. The elected government survived, and Chávez went to jail. But he was not forgotten: he had told the television audience that he would be back, and within six years he was. He won the 1998 presidential election, and set about making sure that only he would decide when the time had come for him to go.
Thereafter he won election after election, changing the constitution when necessary, and dividing the country into bitterly antagonistic pro- and anti-Chávez camps. His admirers worshipped him as the fearless defender of the poor and nemesis of American imperialism; his opponents regarded him as an almost unmitigated disaster, bringing strife and shame to their country.
Certainly, in the early 1990s, Venezuela was crying out for an anti-establishment saviour. Civilian politicians (who had ruled the country after the last military dictator was thrown out in 1958) were jaded and discredited. The oil price boom of the mid-1970s had financed an orgy of consumption, but things had turned sour when government revenues dwindled; when President Carlos Andrés Pérez was elected for a second term in 1989, he was forced to make heavy spending cuts.
In response, the inhabitants of the teeming shanty towns ringing Caracas, who had not prospered even during the boom years, descended on the city centre to riot, loot and burn. Pérez unleashed the army on them, and hundreds died, perhaps thousands.
Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chávez was ill at the time, and took no part in the bloodletting. But the repression helped to crystallise his political aims and ideas. He and a group of like-minded young officers had begun a decade earlier to discuss what was going wrong with their country, and how things could be put right.
They blamed the political parties for waste and corruption on a grand scale — for frittering away money that should have been spent on health, education, welfare, housing, roads and job creation — and formed their own clandestine political organisation, the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement (MBR-200), named after Venezuela’s great national hero Simón Bolívar, the father of South American independence from Spain.
MBR-200 forged links with some, but not all, of Venezuela’s many Left-wing organisations, and began to plot. In early 1992 it made its move, briefly occupying the presidential palace. But the attempted coup was premature, and Chávez spent the next two years in prison. He used the time to refine his political ideas, so that, when he received a pardon from President Rafael Caldera in 1994, he was ready for his next venture.
Far from sinking into obscurity, as Caldera and his advisers had expected, Chávez and MBR-200 — renamed the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) — went from strength to strength. His tub-thumping nationalism and vitriolic denunciations of the ruling elite struck a chord with a growing number of people, fed up with the incompetence and venality of their rulers and impatient for change. Despite this ready-made following, however, Chávez remained convinced that a coup was the only way to power.
The turning point came when Francisco Arias Cárdenas, a fellow Leftist military officer and plotter of the 1992 coup, won an election that made him governor of the oil-rich Zulia state in 1995. Chávez, realising that he could win political power through ballot box, ditched plans for military intervention and pressed ahead with building an electoral strategy instead.
He acquired particular loyalty in the urban shanty towns, which had attracted migrants from all over Venezuela and neighbouring countries during the oil boom years, and had become sinks of unemployment and crime when the hard times came. Nonetheless, at the start of the campaign in 1998, he was well behind the initial favourite, Irene Sáez (a former Miss Universe). As polls showed his fortunes improving, Venezuela’s two established political parties, Copei and Democratic Action, allied to block his candidacy, throwing their weight behind Henrique Salas Romer. It made no difference: on December 6, Chávez won 56 per cent of the vote.
Once in power, with world oil prices soaring again and the dollars flowing in, Chávez began to flex his muscles. A new constitution in 1999 changed the country’s official name to Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Within a few years he was proclaiming that Venezuela was on the road to “21st century socialism”, and he was in the vanguard of a movement to challenge American hegemony and create a “multipolar” world.
Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was born on July 28 1954 in the small town of Sabaneta, in the western state of Barinas. Both his parents were teachers. In 1971 he enrolled in the Venezuelan military academy, passing out four years later as a second-lieutenant. His military career ended when he was cashiered following the 1992 coup attempt.
But as President he was also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and he kept close control of the military, purging the upper ranks of detractors and putting his own supporters in key positions; he also installed senior officers in hundreds of government and administrative posts.
Chávez took the idea of a military-civilian revolution partly from an eclectic mix of Right- and Left-wing ideologies, and also from the Cuban revolution. Fidel Castro was his mentor and inspiration, and it was Cuba that provided Venezuela with thousands of doctors, nurses, teachers and other trained personnel, needed to fill the gaps in state provision as Chávez lavished vast sums on social improvement schemes.
The most striking feature of Chávez’s political style was his aggressive, confrontational manner. He went out of his way to pick quarrels with both the United States and the Venezuelan political and economic establishment, which he liked to satirise in marathon speeches carried compulsorily on all Venezuela’s television channels, as a “rancid oligarchy” in the pay of Washington.
He was equally derisive of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which was an influential opinion-former in a deeply Catholic country. The bishops’ offence was to criticise many aspects of his rule, particularly his growing authoritarianism and intolerance of dissent.
Chávez observed the forms and procedures of representative democracy – elections, parties, parliament – but his was a highly personal rule. He persuaded the government-controlled legislature to grant him special powers to rule by decree, enabling him to introduce sweeping changes to key sectors of the economy, including the oil industry and land ownership.
These actions outraged opposition parties, trade unions and the private sector, which occasionally came together to resist; most of the time, however, they squabbled amongst themselves. Their attempts to unseat him failed, including a coup in April 2002 that lasted just 48 hours before Chávez was swept back into power by loyal military officers and mobs from the shanty towns. The President claimed that Washington had been involved in planning the plot, and insisted thereafter that the Bush administration was planning to assassinate him and/or invade Venezuela.
In December 2006 Chávez was re-elected (for a third term; his first rewriting of the constitution required new elections to be held in 2000). He won 63 per cent of the vote, defeating his conservative rival, Manuel Rosales, who represented most of the fragmented opposition. The 7.1 million votes Chávez secured fell far short of the 10 million he had predicted, but it was enough to give him a clear mandate.
He decided that the constitution needed to be changed again, to allow him to rule indefinitely, a span necessary, he said, to complete Venezuela’s transformation into a “socialist and Bolivarian republic”. He estimated that the project could be completed by 2021.
Changes in that general direction had already been made in Chávez’s first eight years in power, notably by strengthening the role of the state oil company, PDVSA; imposing much tougher terms on foreign oil companies operating in Venezuela; expropriating land deemed to be underused or lacking legal deeds; and giving the state greater control over the education and communications systems.
Massive increases in public spending, fuelled by oil revenues, were the key to his popularity. The downside was inflation, corruption, waste and a scramble for resources and influence among rival factions that all claimed to be chavistas.
But his regime failed to create an upsurge in employment to match the flood of oil-cash, or to redistribute income, and violent crime remained a problem that Chávez was reluctant to acknowledge, much less tackle. His only response was to argue that such were the problems of the “transition” period; his inauguration in early 2007 would mark the beginning, he said, of the next stage of the revolution.
If so, it got off to a rocky start. Proposed constitutional reform, including terms that would increase the president’s powers and allow him to run indefinitely, was rejected at a referendum in December that year. It took a second attempt, in February 2009, for Chávez to secure the changes that allowed him to stand for office as many times as he wished.
Meanwhile his fiery anti-American rhetoric helped to make him an international celebrity. He toured the world, cementing alliances with any countries that he identified as actual or potential challengers to the American “empire” — countries such as Iran, Cuba, Russia; even Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He also cultivated relations with China, with the eventual aim of it supplanting the United States as the main customer for Venezuelan oil, and advocated ever-closer integration between South American countries.
Not all his diplomatic ventures were successful, however: his attempt to secure one of the temporary seats on the UN Security Council for Venezuela in 2006 was a failure, in part because of his verbal excesses. His use of the General Assembly podium to pile abuse on President George W Bush, describing him as “the Devil”, went down badly, and probably cost his country votes. Though he congratulated Barack Obama on his election victory in November 2008, indicating that he was ready to “start a process of rapprochement” with the United States, relations remained strained. And Chávez quarrelled bitterly with governments he regarded as pro-American, particularly Colombia, Peru and Mexico, and alarmed neighbouring Colombia with his large-scale purchases of weapons, ships and warplanes.
But it was at home, not abroad, that the bloodshed erupted. For under Chávez’s leadership, Venezuela became one of the deadliest countries on the planet, with more than 120,000 murders during his first decade in office. The toll was higher than in drug-war afflicted Mexico, and four-times worse than post-war Iraq, with its roughly equivalent population. Experts put the soaring murder rate down to an economy that remained sluggish even as the rest of the continent began to take off; poorly paid police, faced with inflation running at 30 per cent, were themselves accused of running kidnapping gangs.
And while politically motivated arrests of Chávez’s enemies mushroomed, 90 per cent of murders went unsolved. In 2010 a prominent opposition newspaper, El Nacional, printed a grisly photo of a police morgue, draped with a dozen of the latest murder victims. But instead of prompting a government inquiry, the paper was ordered to stop printing images of the violence, prompting claims of censorship.
By mid-2012 the death toll since Chávez’s inauguration had, according to one expert, reached 155,788. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a non-governmental organisation that monitors crime, said a “conservative estimate” for the toll in 2012 alone was 21,692 deaths. “Killings have become a way of executing property crimes, a mechanism to resolve personal conflicts, and a way to apply private justice,” the Observatory explained. In the pre-Chávez era, there had been about 4,500 violent deaths per year.
Chávez was accused of ignoring the problem. But that was partly because in 2011, unusually for a bombastic man determined to remain in the public eye, he had suddenly disappeared off the radar. As speculation about his health spread rapidly, it emerged that he had travelled to Cuba to have a large tumour removed. Typically, he saw this crisis as no reason to scale back his political ambitions. Though his appearances were fewer, he described his battle against cancer as a “rebirth” and turned to social media to drive his campaign to win a fourth term, from 2013 to 2019. This he secured, only to be forced to return Cuba in 2012 for further cancer surgery. In December, the Venezuelan government insisted that he was going through a “favourable recovery” but warned that Chávez might not return to Venezuela by January 10 2013, when he was due to be sworn in.
With his first wife, Nancy Colmenares, Hugo Chávez had a son and two daughters. With his second, Marisabel Rodríguez, he had another daughter. Both marriages were dissolved.
Hugo Chávez, born July 28 1954, died aged 58 in a military hospital in Caracas after suffering from a respiratory infection during treatment for cancer.