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Venezuelan Strongman Hugo Chavez Dead at 58

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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.

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About Clavos

Raised in Mexico by American parents, Clavos is proudly bi-cultural, and considers both Spanish and English as his native languages. A lifelong boating enthusiast, Clavos lives aboard his ancient trawler, Second Act, in Coconut Grove, Florida and enjoys cruising the Bahamas and Florida Keys from that base. When not dealing with the never-ending maintenance issues inherent in ancient trawlers, Clavos sells yachts to finance his boat habit, but his real love (after boating, of course) is writing and editing; a craft he has practiced at Blogcritics since 2006.
  • Nice piece of journalism, Clav. I doubt that many will place Chavez very high in the pantheon of leaders. He was by some measure, a buffoon, but I agree with you that he did have a significant effect – for good or ill – in his part of the world, and beyond.

  • Deano

    I think, had he arisen a generation ago during the Cold War, his role would have been a significant destabilizer in the region, akin and possibly encompassing Cuba’s. As it was, his role without superpower backing was more the typical regional strongman and perennial annoyance then strategic threat, despite the copious oil reserves and the proximity to the Panama Canal. Very probably his neighbours are breathing a little easier today…

  • troll

    yup – the plutocratic world can breath easier today…Chavez did much for the poor and died politely at a young age avoiding dictatorship

  • Dr Dreadful

    He was one of those world leaders whose behaviour – like that of Iran’s Ahmadinejad – was so eccentric that his foes, principally in the United States, often didn’t know quite what to make of him. The international reactions to his antics were often as fascinating as the antics themselves.

    For entertainment value alone, he leaves a void in world politics.

  • roger nowosielski

    Your closing sentence doesn’t quite follow from the rather objective tone of the entire article. Too bad Moonraven isn’t here to offer a rebuttal.

  • Clavitos

    “Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion.” says Penn in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter. “I lost a friend I was blessed to have. My thoughts are with the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela.”

    If the likes of Chavez could fool him to that degree, Sean Penn’s intelligence is outmatched by that of a box of rocks.

  • Did you write this article just so you could use those last two sentences?

  • Clavitos

    Chris: 🙂