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Summary Article: Chávez Frías, Hugo
From Encyclopedia of United States - Latin American Relations
  • Keywords
  • Venezuela
  • South American Heads of State
  • Famous and Infamous Individuals

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías (1954–) is the current president of Venezuela and one of the most polarizing political figures in Latin America in recent years. Widely known for his advocacy of revolutionary transformation in Venezuela and his aggressive anti-U.S. rhetoric, his supporters claim him as the voice of a new Latin American movement of “twenty-first century socialism” and independence from yanqui imperialism, while his opponents attack him as a caudillo, a dictator, and a megalomaniac.

Chávez spent his early career in the army, including at least ten years planning a military coup against Venezuela's ruling elite. In seeing the military as a source of revolutionary change, he followed in a long-standing Latin American tradition, exemplified most vividly during Chávez's youth by Panama's General Omar Torrijos. Chávez has tended to be ambiguous about the changing substance of his revolutionary thinking, but he has identified himself most closely and consistently with nineteenth-century peasant leader Ezequiel Zamora, revolutionary thinker Simón Rodríguez, and, above all, the hero of Latin American independence, Simón Bolívar.

The long-planned Chávez coup was launched in 1992, during the second presidency of Carlos Andrés Pérez, but it lacked a mass civilian uprising or widespread support within the military. As with Fidel Castro's famous assault on the Moncada Barracks, though, this initial defeat propelled Chávez onto the national stage. He became widely known as a populist “antipolitician” and, after a short period of imprisonment, successfully ran for election as president in 1998.

In office Chávez has used his position to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution, reformulate the constituent assembly, weaken the powers of the Supreme Court, put allies in charge of the nation's major industries and infrastructure, purge the army of disloyal elements, tighten his grip over the media, and expand public spending on social programs both within Venezuela and elsewhere in the world. He has successfully resisted fierce opposition from the old elite, as well as the middle classes and some organized labour groups, although he only narrowly avoided being deposed in a coup in April 2002. Supporters point out that, after some years of crisis, unemployment and infant mortality rates declined under the first term of Chávez's presidency, while literacy rates, life expectancy, and average incomes went up. Ambitious misiones were also established to wage war on poverty, unemployment, ill health, and poor education. Opponents note that, despite munificent oil bounties, Chávez has enlarged the national debt, failed to control endemic inflation (it was around 30 percent in 2002 and 2003), not stemmed violence on the streets that has grown exponentially, and achieved little in terms of rooting out corruption. The old oligarchy was instead replaced by a class of nouveaux riches, commonly known in Venezuela as the boliburguesia (“Bolivarian bourgeoisie”), built from patronage dispensed by the president.

In promoting his revolutionary agenda Chávez was undoubtedly aided by consistently rising oil prices, which allowed Venezuela to project its power far beyond what would otherwise have been possible. But he was also able to take advantage of his tremendous personal popularity within Venezuela, especially among the poorest segments of society. Internationally Chávez also benefited from his opposition to a very unpopular U.S. president, aligning himself with the most vocal critics of President George W. Bush's foreign policy, particularly Fidel Castro, and regularly launching ad hominem attacks upon Bush, calling him, among other things, a donkey, an alcoholic, the devil, and un pendejo (roughly equivalent in tone to “asshole” or “dumbass”).

Compared to the positions adopted by left-of-center leaders in Argentina, Brazil, and elsewhere, then, Chávez consciously chose to provoke and exacerbate tensions between the Venezuelan and U.S. governments in order to reinforce his revolutionary credentials. His hostility was reciprocated by the U.S. government, which was undoubtedly aware of and (some speculate) perhaps even involved in, the anti-Chávez coup of 2002. Some right-wing commentators in the United States regularly included Chávez alongside the “Axis of Evil” countries and advocated his overthrow or assassination, while Chávez has justified major arms purchases for the Venezuelan army as preparations for a potential U.S. invasion. Nevertheless, the United States remains a major purchaser of Venezuelan oil, and both sides seem to have preferred vocal criticism and fractious diplomacy to more open or violent confrontation that might substantially affect ongoing trade relations.

Chávez thus established himself as the central figure in a supposed pan-continental movement to the left in the early years of the twenty-first century and a return to the hostile anti-Americanism common to Latin American politics during the Cold War. He vocally rejected the “Washington Consensus,” and sought to promote ideas and allies that would weaken the influence of the United States throughout the region and the world, even going so far as to put forward policies—such as providing cheap oil to poor U.S. citizens and offering aid to victims of Hurricane Katrina—that implicitly challenged Washington's authority within the U.S. territory itself. After a prolonged period in which U.S.-Venezuelan tensions manifested in multiple ways, including through clashes between Chávez and the pro-U.S. government of neighboring Colombia, Venezuela's relations with the United States reached their lowest point at the end of Bush's presidency. In September 2008 Chávez expelled U.S. Ambassador Patrick Duddy, alleging he had been involved in plots to overthrow the Venezuelan government. In 2009 Chávez also launched investigations into Duddy's replacement, chargé d'affairs John Caulfield, for allegedly meeting anti-Chávez activists during a trip to Puerto Rico.

The election of President Obama, the collapse of global oil prices following the global recession of 2008, and growing opposition to Chávez's rule at home seem to have contributed to a relaxation of tensions between the two powers. Formal diplomatic relations were restored in June 2009. Nevertheless Chávez continues to voice his plans for the revolutionary transformation of Latin America, while many on the U.S. right continue to express their hostility to Chávez both personally and politically. As such the final impact of Chávez for U.S.-Venezuelan relations has yet to be fully revealed. Chavez was diagnosed with cancer.

See also Bolívar, Simón; Bush, George W.; Castro Ruz, Fidel; Pérez Rodríguez, Carlos Andrés; Torrijos Herrera, Omar; Venezuela, U.S. Relations with

  • Kozloff, Nikolas. Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
  • Marcano, CristinaTyszka., Alberto Barrera Hugo Chávez. New York: Random House, 2004.
  • Wilpert, Greg. Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chávez Government. New York: Verso, 2007.
Copyright © 2012 by CQ Press, an Imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc.

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