LOSES CANCER BATTLE— In this May 14, 2004 file photo, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez gives a press conference at the presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Leslie Mazoch, File)
by Frank Bajak
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo Chavez was a fighter. The former paratroop commander and fiery populist waged continual battle for his socialist ideals and outsmarted his rivals time and again, defeating a coup attempt, winning re-election three times and using his country’s vast oil wealth to his political advantage.
A self-described “subversive,” Chavez fashioned himself after the 19th Century independence leader Simon Bolivar and renamed his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
He called himself a “humble soldier” in a battle for socialism and against U.S. hegemony. He thrived on confrontation with Washington and his political opponents at home, and used those conflicts to rally his followers.
Almost the only adversary it seemed he couldn’t beat was cancer.
During more than 14 years in office, his leftist politics and grandiose style polarized Venezuelans. The barrel-chested leader electrified crowds with his booming voice, and won admiration among the poor with government social programs and a folksy, nationalistic style.
His opponents seethed at the larger-than-life character who demonized them on television and ordered the expropriation of farms and businesses. Many in the middle class cringed at his bombast and complained about rising crime, soaring inflation and government economic controls.
Before his struggle with cancer, he appeared on television almost daily, frequently speaking for hours and breaking into song or philosophical discourse. He often wore the bright red of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or the fatigues and red beret of his army days. He had donned the same uniform in 1992 while leading an ill-fated coup attempt that first landed him in jail and then launched his political career.
The rest of the world watched as the country with the world’s biggest proven oil reserves took a turn to the left under its unconventional leader, who considered himself above all else a revolutionary.
“I’m still a subversive,” the president told The Associated Press in a 2007 interview, recalling his days as a rebel soldier. “I think the entire world has to be subverted.”
Chavez was a master communicator and savvy political strategist, and managed to turn his struggle against cancer into a rallying cry, until the illness finally defeated him.
He died Tuesday in Caracas at 4:25 local time after his prolonged illness.
From the start, Chavez billed himself as the heir of Simon Bolivar, who led much of South America to independence. He often spoke beneath a portrait of Bolivar and presented replicas of the liberator’s sword to allies. He built a soaring mausoleum in Caracas to house the remains of “El Libertador.”
Chavez also was inspired by his mentor Fidel Castro and took on the Cuban leader’s role as Washington’s chief antagonist in the Western Hemisphere after the ailing Castro turned over the presidency to his brother Raul in 2006. Like Castro, Chavez vilified U.S.-style capitalism while forming alliances throughout Latin America and with distant powers such as Russia, China and Iran.
Supporters eagerly raised Chavez to the pantheon of revolutionary legends ranging from Castro to Argentine-born rebel Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Chavez nurtured that cult of personality, and even as he stayed out of sight for long stretches fighting cancer, his out-sized image appeared on buildings and billboard throughout Venezuela. The airwaves boomed with his baritone mantra: “I am a nation.” Supporters carried posters and wore masks of his eyes, chanting, “I am Chavez.”
In the battles Chavez waged at home and abroad, he captivated his base by championing his country’s poor.
“This is the path: the hard, long path, filled with doubts, filled with errors, filled with bitterness, but this is the path,” Chavez told his backers in 2011. “The path is this: socialism.”
He invested Venezuela’s oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. Chavez also organized poor neighborhoods into community councils that aided his party’s political machine.
Official statistics showed poverty rates declined from 50 percent at the beginning of Chavez’s first term in 1999 to 32 percent in the second half of 2011.
Chavez also won support through sheer charisma and a flair for drama.
He ordered Bolivar’s sword removed from the Central Bank to unsheathe at key moments, and once raised it before militia troops urging them to be ready to “give your lives, if you have to, for the Bolivarian Revolution!”
On television, he would lambast his opponents as “oligarchs,” scold his aides, tell jokes, reminisce about his childhood, lecture Venezuelans on socialism and make sudden announcements, such as expelling the U.S. ambassador or ordering tanks to Venezuela’s border with Colombia. Sometimes he would burst into baritone renditions of folk songs.
Chavez carried his in-your-face style to the world stage as well. In a 2006 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he called President George W. Bush the devil, saying the podium reeked of sulfur after the U.S. president’s address.
At a summit in 2007, he repeatedly called Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a fascist, prompting Spain’s King Juan Carlos to snap at Chavez, “Why don’t you shut up?”
Critics saw Chavez as a typical Latin American caudillo, a strongman who ruled through force of personality and showed disdain for democratic rules. Chavez concentrated power in his hands as his allies dominated the congress and justices seen as doing his bidding controlled the Supreme Court.
Chavez insisted Venezuela remained a vibrant democracy and denied trying to restrict free speech. But some opponents faced criminal charges and were driven into exile. Chavez’s government forced one opposition-aligned television channel, RCTV, off the air by refusing to renew its license.
While Chavez trumpeted plans for communes and an egalitarian society, his rhetoric regularly conflicted with reality. Despite government seizures of companies and farmland, the balance between Venezuela’s public and private sectors changed little during his presidency. And even as the poor saw their incomes rise, those gains were blunted while the country’s currency weakened amid the economic controls he imposed.
Nonetheless, Chavez maintained a core of supporters who stayed loyal to their “comandante” until the end.
“Chavez masterfully exploits the disenchantment of people who feel excluded … and he feeds on controversy whenever he can,” Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka wrote in their book “Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela’s Controversial President.”