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Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías

Chávez Frías, Hugo Rafael (ōˈgō räfäĕlˈ chäˈvĕs frēˈäs) [key], 1954–2013, Venezuelan political leader, president of Venezuela (1999–2013). Raised in poverty, he was educated at the Military Academy of Venezuela (grad. 1975). For two decades he was a career army officer, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1992, Chávez took part in an unsuccessful coup attempt against President Carlos Andrés Pérez and was imprisoned until 1994.

A charismatic populist with a gift for oratory, he became the leader of the socialist Fifth Republic Movement (which later became the core of the United Socialist party) and the multiparty leftist Patriotic Pole alliance. Promising a peaceful social revolution, Chávez was elected president in a landslide in 1998. In office he ended the privatization of Venezuela's state holdings, put himself in control of economic matters, and cut oil production to raise oil prices. A constituent assembly mainly made up of his supporters wrote a new constitution that granted the president increased powers and a longer possible term of office and weakened the legislature and judiciary.

Chávez's popularity with the country's poor increased as he took measures against corruption, criticized the traditional oligarchy, and made more funds available for social programs. He also attacked his critics in business and the media and expanded the role of the military. Closer ties were established with Latin American leftist nations, e.g., Bolivia, Cuba, and Nicaragua, which Venezuela supplied with economic assistance financed by oil revenues, as well as with Middle Eastern oil-producing nations.

In 2000, Chávez won office under the new constitution. Although he retained strong support among the lower classes, establishing health clinics for the poor, new hospitals, state-run stores that sold state-subsidized food, better schools, and other benefits, opposition to his rule increased. Many expressed fears that he was exhibiting the distinctively dictatorial signs of the classic Latin American military strongman, the caudillo. Strikes and demonstrations sparked by his attempts to assert control over the state oil company led to a short-lived coup in Apr., 2002, and a prolonged strike by oil workers late in 2002. An attempt by the opposition to recall him through a referendum (Aug., 2004) resulted in a solid vote for Chávez.

Reelected in a landslide in 2006, he moved to nationalize all private energy and power companies in Venezuela and the country's largest telecommunications firms; nationalizations subsequently expanded to include other industries and services. He urged other Latin American countries to folllow suit and also urged them to forge closer ties, achieve greater regional integration, and be less dependent on the United States, which he often criticized. Chávez also increased government restrictions on the media. While his strength with poor Venezuelans remained strong, the middle and upper classes reacted negatively. Many privately sponsored projects were halted, and many doctors, scientists, entrepeneurs, and other private-sector Venezuelans left the country. His support for potential political allies in other countries led a number of Latin American nations to accuse him of meddling in their internal affairs.

Treated for cancer beginning in 2011, Chávez declared himself recovered before he ran for a third time in 2012; he won solidly but not by a landslide. Subsequent cancer surgery in Cuba led to complications, and his 2013 inauguration was postponed. He died in Mar., 2013, after returning to Venezuela. Vice President Nicolás Maduro Moros succeeded him as interim president.

See A. Guevara, Chávez, Venezuela and the New Latin America: An Interview with Hugo Chávez (2005) and Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution: Chavez Talks to Marta Harnecker (2005); biographies by B. Jones (2007), C. Marcano and A. B. Tyszka (2007), and R. Carroll (2013); studies by N. Kozloff (2006), J. Corrales and M. Penfold (2010), R. Gott (2d ed., 2011), and R. Carroll (2013).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Venezuelan History: Biographies


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