Hugo Chavez, Fiery Venezuelan Leader, Dies at 58

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But between his army duties and drills, the young soldier immersed himself in the history of Bolivar and other Venezuelan heroes who had overthrown Spanish rule, and his political ideas began to take shape.

Chavez burst into public view in 1992 as a paratroop commander leading a military rebellion that brought tanks to the presidential palace. The coup collapsed and the plotters were imprisoned.

When Chavez was allowed to speak on television, he said his movement had only failed “for now.” Chavez’s short speech, and especially those two defiant words, seared him into the memory of Venezuelans and became a springboard for his career.

President Rafael Caldera, long an advocate of political reconciliation, dropped charges against Chavez and other coup plotters in 1994 and released them from prison.

Chavez then organized a new political party and ran for president in 1998, pledging to clean up Venezuela’s entrenched corruption and shatter its traditional two-party system. At age 44, he became the country’s youngest president in four decades of democracy with 56 percent of the vote.

After he took office on Feb. 2, 1999, Chavez called for a new constitution, and an assembly filled with his allies drafted the document. Among various changes, it lengthened presidential terms from five years to six and changed the country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Chavez was re-elected in 2000 in an election called under the new constitution. His increasingly confrontational style and close ties to Cuba, however, disenchanted many of the middle-class supporters who had voted for him, and the next several years saw bold attempts by opponents to dislodge him from power.

In 2002, he survived a short-lived coup, which began after large anti-Chavez street protests ended in shootings and bloodshed. Dissident military officers alarmed by Chavez’s growing ties to Cuba detained the president and announced he had resigned. But within two days, he returned to power with the help of military loyalists amid massive protests by his supporters.

Chavez emerged a stronger president. He defeated an opposition-led strike that paralyzed the country’s oil industry and fired thousands of state oil company employees.

The coup also turned Chavez more decidedly against the U.S. government, which had swiftly recognized the provisional leader who briefly replaced him. He created political and trade alliances that excluded the U.S., and he cozied up to Iran and Syria in large part, it seemed, due to their shared antagonism toward the U.S. government.

Despite the souring relationship, Chavez kept selling the bulk of Venezuela’s oil to the United States.

By 2005, Chavez was espousing a new, vaguely defined “21st-century socialism.” Yet the agenda didn’t involve a sudden overhaul to the country’s economic order, and some businesspeople continued to prosper. Those with lucrative ties to the government came to be known as the “Bolivarian bourgeoisie.”

After easily winning re-election in 2006, Chavez began calling for a “multi-polar world” free of U.S. domination, part of an expanded international agenda. He boosted oil shipments to China, set up joint factories with Iran to produce tractors and cars, and sealed arms deals with Russia for assault rifles, helicopters and fighter jets. He focused on building alliances throughout Latin America and injected new energy into the region’s left. Allies were elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and other countries.

Chavez also cemented relationships with island countries in the Caribbean by selling them oil on preferential terms while severing ties with Israel, supporting the Palestinian cause and backing Iran’s right to a nuclear energy program.

All the while, Chavez emphasized that it was necessary to prepare for any potential conflict with the “empire,” his term for the United States.

He told the AP in 2007 that he loved the movie “Gladiator.”

“It’s confronting the empire, and confronting evil. … And you end up relating to that gladiator,” Chavez said as he drove across Venezuela’s southern plains.

He said he felt a deep connection to those plains where he grew up, and that when died he hoped to be buried in the savanna.

“A man from the plains, from these great open spaces … tends to be a nomad, tends not to see barriers. You don’t see barriers from childhood on. What you see is the horizon,” Chavez said.

Chavez wasn’t shy about flaunting his government’s achievements, such as free health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors, new public housing and laptops for needy children.

But even Chavez acknowledged in 2011 that one of his government’s greatest weaknesses was a “lack of efficiency.” He called it “a big error that many times has put in danger the government’s policies.”

Running a revolution ultimately left little time for a personal life. His second marriage, to journalist Marisabel Rodriguez, deteriorated in the early years of his presidency, and they divorced in 2004. In addition to their one daughter, Rosines, Chavez had three children from his first marriage, which ended before he ran for office. His daughters Maria and Rosa often appeared at his side at official events and during his trips.

Chavez acknowledged after he was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011 that he had recklessly neglected his health. He had taken to staying up late and drinking as many as 40 cups of coffee a day. He regularly summoned his Cabinet ministers to the presidential palace late at night.

Even as he appeared with head shaved while undergoing chemotherapy, he never revealed the exact location of tumors that were removed from his pelvic region, or the exact type of cancer.

Chavez exerted himself for one final election campaign in 2012 after saying tests showed he was cancer-free, and defeated younger challenger Henrique Capriles. With another six-year term in hand, he promised to keep pressing for revolutionary changes.

But two months later, he went to Cuba for a fourth cancer-related surgery, blowing a kiss to his country as he boarded the plane.

After a 10-week absence, the government announced that Chavez had returned to Venezuela and was being treated at a military hospital in Caracas. He was never seen again in public.

In his final years, Chavez frequently said Venezuela was well on its way toward socialism, and at least in his mind, there was no turning back.

His political movement, however, was mostly a one-man phenomenon. Only three days before his final surgery, Chavez named Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his chosen successor.

Now, it will be up to Venezuelans to determine whether the Chavismo movement can survive, and how it will evolve, without the leader who inspired it.

(Photo: AP)

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