A classic Latin American Caudillo (strongman) with a socialist bent, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias, ruler of Venezuela for the past 14 years, has succumbed to the pelvic cancer he was diagnosed with in 2011, at which time he traveled to his close friend, Fidel Castro Ruz’s Cuba for treatment. The cancer returned in 2012, and once again he traveled to Cuba for treatment. A few months ago, he announced he would soon go there a third time for treatment of the resurgent cancer.
Chávez’ death was announced earlier today by Venezuela’s Vice President Nicolás Maduro. Maduro was visibly emotional as he made the announcement flanked by political and military leaders. Chávez had been grooming Maduro for some time to be his successor, But under the constitution, the head of Venezuela’s Congress, Diosdado Cabello, will assume the interim presidency until an election is held.
Hugo Chávez Frias (in the Latin American tradition, Frias is his mother’s maiden name) was born in the town of Sabaneta, in Barinas state, in 1954. Both of his parents were schoolteachers. After lower schooling, he attended the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences. Upon graduation from the academy, he was sworn in as a paratrooper and commissioned officer in the Venezuelan army until 1992, when he participated in a failed coup attempt by a revolutionary organization, the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, which Chávez helped to establish in the 1980s during his army tour. Chavéz was sentenced to two years in prison for his role in the failed attempt.
A few years later, in 1999, Hugo Chávez Frias was elected to the presidency of Venezuela for the first time. He immediately began to make extensive changes to the Venezuelan government, including a new constitution and even changing the name of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. It was also during this first term that he began what was to become a frequent activity with him: the nationalization of companies and even entire industries, in particular those news organizations which dared to criticize him and his regime.
The first commercial entity to fall to his nationalization plans was, naturally enough, the country’s oil industry, a coup that would later serve him in good stead as he began to give money to Cuba’s Fidel Castro, whose treasury was just about depleted by the withdrawal of Cuba’s Soviet support. Chávez gained Castro as a solid anti-US ally by pouring billions of petrodollars, an average of $10 billion a year since 2007, into Cuba’s coffers; a level of aid that now amounts to 22 percent of Cuba’s total economic output every year. As a result of all this largesse, the two grew exceptionally close. Because of the difference in their ages, their relationship was often characterized by observers as being a “father and son” relationship, and the union between their two countries which that resulted in what was often referred to as Cubazuela.
During his reign, Chavez also befriended and gave money to other Latin American countries and their leaders. These countries invariably were, like Chávez himself, socialist regimes. Among those he befriended were Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. Chávez also went out of his way to develop strong relationships with American opponents in the Middle East; among them Muammar Gaddafi, former leader of Libya, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Unless Chávez’ successor continues the aid program initiated by the dead leader, the fallout from his demise is sure to be devastating to Cuba’s Castro regime and to all of the island nation.
Throughout his reign at the head of the Bolivarian government, Chávez never lost an opportunity to cast opprobrium at his favorite ogre, the USA and its presidents. Indeed, he famously called President G.W. Bush a “liar,” “coward,” “murderer” and “donkey.” On another occasion, before the UN General Assembly, he garnered worldwide headlines by calling Bush a “Devil.” In a 2007 interview, he told Barbara Walters, “I think I’m just saying what many people would like to tell him. I said he was a donkey because, I think, he’s very ignorant about what is actually happening in Latin America and the world.”
As Venezuela’s Caudillo, he did make some attempts to win the hearts and minds of the American people, all the while excoriating our presidents and our country. The gestures included offering heating oil to consumers in the US at a 40 percent discount from the market price through his US outlet, state-owned Citgo.
Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias, dead of cancer at 58, made a distinctive mark on the world, particularly in the Americas, during his 14 years as the head of state of his “Bolivarian Republic.”
Blackguard, buffoon, or something in between? How history will judge him, of course, remains to be seen.