Hugo Chávez Frías (born July 28, 1954) is President of Venezuela. He is a controversial figure because he has been governing Venezuela following the principles of a progressive social movement, which he calls Bolivarianism, in honor of the Venezulan-born South American independence hero Simón Bolívar. His policies have antagonized the Venezuelan elite and the current United States government. He is supported by Venezuela's Bolivarian Circles, the members of which tend to be drawn from the working classes.
The son of Hugo de los Reyes Chávez and Elena Frías de Chávez, Chávez has four children of his own: Rosa Virginia, María Gabriela, Hugo Rafael, and Rosinés. He was married twice and is currently separated from his second wife.
He graduated from the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences on July 5, 1975, after being awarded master's degrees in military sciences and engineering. He continued his education by following a master's degree in political sciences at the Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, which he did not finish according to his university tutor and the head of the Political Science school. An ex-paratrooper, Chávez came to prominence after heading a failed military coup in 1992. After spending two years in prison, he was pardoned by former President Rafael Caldera, and emerged as a politician, organizing a new political party called the Movement for the Fifth Republic. Chávez won the presidential election on February 4, 1998, and again in 2000, by the largest majority in four decades, running on an anti-corruption and anti-poverty platform, and condemning the two major parties that had dominated Venezuelan politics since 1958. (His current term of office runs until 2006.)
Chávez has a deeply antagonistic position to the entrenched landed and commercial elite of Venezuela, and to the commercial media, much of which is associated with that powerful landed and commercial elite.
A number of about five major TV networks, and one out of approximately ten major newspapers are completely opposed to Chávez. Chávez claims that this is because they are controlled by the business interests which oppose him, whereas the media accuse him of having intimidated journalists with his pronouncements and of sending gangs to threaten journalists with physical violence.
Chávez passed a set of 49 laws, which, among many other measures, were supposed to increase the government's oil income and redistribute land. Fedecámaras, the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce, vehemently opposed these laws and decided to call for a general business strike on December 10, 2001.
Chávez was responsible for the replacement of the upper management of the Venezuelan national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), allegedly on grounds of mismanagement and corruption, but supporters of the PDVSA board call the action "politically motivated".
Chávez has antagonised the government of the United States through his oil export policies, by his public friendship with Cuba. Chávez is a close friend of Fidel Castro and they've held several meetings in both Cuba and Venezula since Chávez took office. Venezuela is providing Cuba with 53,000 barrels of oil daily, which has made possible the revitalization of the Cuban economy.
Consolidation of Power
Almost immediately after taking office in 1998, opposition leaders claim that Chavez took his first steps towards consolidating power of the Venezuelan state into his own hands. He organized a series of referenda. The first authorized re-writing the Venezuelan constitution. The second selected delegates to a Constitutional Assembly, distinct from his country's legislature, to do the re-writing. The rules governing the election of the Constitutional Assembly featured a few non-standard items. Although no candidates, neither Chavez's supporters nor his opposition, were allowed to run under party banners, Chavez used state funded media to campaign for the election of his supporters. This, combined with Chavez's personal popularity, allowed Chavez supporters to win 120 of the 131 assembly seats.
The Constitutional Assembly, with the backing of Chavez, moved beyond re-writing Venezuela's Constitution. In August of 1999, the assembly set up a "judicial emergency committee" with the power to remove judges without consulting any other branch of government. The New York Times quoted the judicial emergency committee chairman as saying, "The Constitutional Assembly has absolute powers. The objective is that the substitution of judges will take place peacefully, but if the courts refuse to acknowledge the assembly's authority, we will proceed in a different fashion."
In the same month, the assembly declared a "legislative emergency." A seven-member committee was created to perform congressional functions, including law-making. The Constitutional Assembly prohibited the Congress from holding meetings of any sort. In a national radio address quoted in the Times, Chavez warned Venezuelans not to obey opposition officials, stating that "we can intervene in any police force in any municipality, because we are not going to permit any tumult or uproar. Order has arrived in Venezuela."
The new constitution, increasing the President's term of office by one year, increasing the power of the president in general, and placing new government restrictions on the media, among other things, was approved in a referendum held in December of 1999. Elections for the new, unicameral legislature were held in July of 2000. During the same election, Chavez stood for election again, restarting the clock on his Presidential term of office. Chavez supporters won roughly 60% of the seats in the new unicameral assembly. In November of 2000, he pushed a bill through the legislature allowing him to rule by decree for one year.
In December of 2000 there was another set of elections. During elections for local officials, Chavez added a referendum on dissolving Venezuela's labor unions. Though it is unclear what authority was invoked, he attempted to consolidate all Venezuelan labor unions into a single, state controlled Bolivaran Labor Force.
2002 Coup Attempt Against Chávez
Chávez was briefly deposed and arrested in a military coup on April 12, 2002, which installed a businessman, Pedro Carmona, who was head of the Fedecámaras as interim president. Carmona resigned after about a day, and was briefly replaced by vice president Diosdado Cabello, before Chávez returned to the presidential palace. However, on the day of the alleged coup, it was initially announced by General in Chief Lucas Rincón that Chávez had resigned; since Rincón remains close to Chávez and is now, in fact, the Secretary of Domestic Affairs, many Venezuelans argue that the resignation was real and that there was no coup.
The coup was publicly condemned by most Latin American nations. The United States did not do so until Chávez had been restored to power. U.S. government statements
An earlier protest by the military was made by two men, Air Force Col. Pedro Soto and National Guard Capt. Pedro Flores Rivero, who held a small rally to accuse the government of being non-democratic. The new Venezuelan Constitution (approved during the first Chávez administration) allows military personnel to carry out such political protests. They were sent home in uniform and placed under investigation by a joint civilian and military board.
On April 9, 2002, Venezuela's largest union federation, the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), led by Carlos Ortega, called for a two-day general strike. This may have been in response to Chávez having forced the unions to carry out new elections of the leadership amid fraud allegations. Chávez did not recognise the reelection of the union leadership. Chávez raised the national minimum wage by 20% in an attempt to call off the strike.
Fedecámaras joined the strike and called on all of its affiliated businesses to close for 48 hours.
A large amount of people marched to the headquarters of Venezuela's oil company, PDVSA, in defense of its fired management. The organizers decided to re-route the march to Miraflores, the president's office building, so as to confront pro-government demonstrators.
After violence erupted between demonstrators and police (controlled by the opposition), 17 people were killed and about a hundred wounded, almost all of them Chávez supporters. Reports during the coup stated that the demonstrators were shot by armed Chávez supporters. Four of the alleged snipers were identified and it was suggested held close ties with the Chávez government. A video was recorded of the repeated firing of a pro-Chávez protester. Doctors who treated the wounded reported that almost all of them appeared to have been shot from above, not from the place where the known snipers were. It has been alleged that foreign professional marksmen were hired by those interested in creating disorders to overthrow Chávez.
However, a television crew from Irish television (Radio Telifís Éireann) which happened to be recording a programme about Chávez at the time (and which after the short coup was based in the presidential palace with members of both rival governments and their supporters) recorded images of the events that contradicted explanations given by anti-Chávez campaigners, by the opposition-controlled elements of the media, by the US State Department, and by President George W. Bush's official spokesman. In addition, after they initially took power, opposition figures bragged about how they had engineered the coup. They stated that the organizers of the anti-Chávez march had deliberately rerouted the parade to bring it face to face with a pro-Chávez march. This, one coup leader said, was done as a deliberate act of provocation, given that both parades had previously agreed routes with the police to avoid coming face to face. One organizer of the anti-Chávez march told the film crew that the march was intended to be the start of the overthrow of Chávez and that violence could be expected, with agents provocateurs located at the intended meeting point to trigger gunfire and provoke an opposition-controlled police and army response, mass panic and deaths. (Though the phrasing was ambiguous, the anti-Chávez activist speaking after the event while the coup leaders were still in power appeared to suggest that the gunfire was to have been launched against its own supporters initially for which the military would then be blamed.)1
While briefly in power, Carmona:
- Dissolved the National Assembly, promising elections by December
- Pledged presidential elections within one year
- Declared void the 1999 Constitution introduced under Chávez and approved by popular vote in a national referendum
- Promised a return to the pre-1999 bicameral parliamentary system
- Repealed the 49 laws that gave the government greater control of the economy
- Reinstated retired Gen. Guaicaipuro Lameda as president of Petróleos de Venezuela.
- Fired the Supreme Court judges
The dissolution of the National Assembly and Supreme Court cost Carmona much of his support within Venezuela; some Venezuelans who were concerned that Chávez had authoritarian tendencies found these moves even more threatening.
Chávez himself has repeatedly stated that he believes the Bush Administration and the CIA orchestrated the coup. In September 2003 he refused to travel to the United States to address the United Nations because he believed the American government had ordered his assassination.
For two months from December 2, 2002, the Chávez government was faced with a business strike, led by the oil industry management. As a consequence, Venezuela stopped exporting a daily average of 2,800,000 barrels of oil and derivatives and began to require the import of gasoline for internal use. Chávez combatted the oil strike by progressively firing about 18,000 PDVSA employees. A court ruling has deemed the dismissal of these workers illegal and has ordered the immediate return of the entire group to their former posts. Nevertheless, Chávez, PDVSA's CEO Alí Rodríguez, and Minister of Mines Rafael Rodríguez have repeatedly expressed that such ruling will not be enforced. The ILO has also criticised the measure stating a deep concern about violations to workers' rights.
2003: A new coup?
In October and November 2003, members of the Venezuelan parliament published various documents alleging the possibility of a second coup, planned by right-wing forces of Venezuela in close collaboration with the CIA. Charles S. Shapiro, the US ambassador in Caracas and former Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Chile at the time of the coup against Salvador Allende, admitted on 30 September 2003 that military training-camps for Venezuelan oppositional forces are currently being run in Florida. (A reference to those allegations can be found here.)
However, to date no evidence of these allegations has been presented by parliament members or anyone else. In light of the long history of US intervention in Latin American countries, though, many find the allegations credible. In addition, documents released under the US Freedom of Information Act reveal that the US government has consistently been funding anti-Chávez groups. (1), (2)
2004: Reaction to Haiti situation
In response to events unfolding in Haiti, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who was previously overthrown by a coup claimed by supporters to have been engineered by the United States, called president George W. Bush a pendejo ("wanker" or "asshole") and threatened to cut off all oil exports to the United States if Washington takes any more action against his country. 
2004: Movement to Remove Chávez in a Referendum
In August of 2003, opposition leaders began the process to recall Chavez through the means of a constitutional referendum on his leadership. In September of 2003, The Economist reported that the government used a "rapid reaction" squad to raid the offices of the National Electoral Council (CNE), the government body overseeing the petition drive. The Economist also reported that the government punished Venezuelan citizens for signing the petition. Names of signers were leaked to a pro-Chavez legislator who published them on his website. Military officers who signed the petition were disciplined. Venezuela's state run oil company would not hire people known to have signed the petition.
Despite this, the petition drive continued and 3.2 million signatures were gathered. Eventually, the CNE rejected the petition by a vote of 3-0 with 2 members abstaining. They ruled that signatures collected before the mid-point of Chavez's term were not valid under Venezuelan law.
A second petition drive began, the drive currently in the news. Again, the opposition collected over 3 million signatures. This time the CNE questioned the validity of individual signatures, saying that disputed signatures must be re-confirmed individually. The petitioners appealed the Electoral Chamber of the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the Venezuelan Supreme Court. The court reinstated over 800,000 of the disputed signatures, bringing the total to 2.7 million -- well above the 2.4 million needed to authorize the referendum. However, about a week later, the Constitutional chamber of the TSJ overturned the Electoral chamber's ruling.
Again, the names of petition signers were posted publicly. The president of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation was quoted in the Associated Press as claiming that the government has began firing petition signers from government ministries, the state oil company, the state water company, the Caracas Metro, and public hospitals and municipal governments controlled by Chavez's party. The Associated Press also quoted Venezuela's Health minister, Roger Capella, as justifying petition related layoffs by saying "all those who have signed to activate the recall referendum against President Chavez should be fired from the Health Ministry". He retracted these remarks several days later by saying that they were his own personal opinions and not a matter of public policy.
1 The film crew's report, broadcast on RTÉ's True Lives series under the title Chávez: Inside the Coup, won the Best Information and Current Affairs Production and the Global Television Grand Prize at the Banff Television Festival in Alberta, Canada, on 11 June 2003, beating 82 international productions in 14 categories, chosen from an entry of 900 from 39 countries. For the top prize it beat high profile series such as The West Wing and the BBC's Daniel Deronda. The special has been broadcast worldwide, praised by politicians and the media, and led to a fundamental revision in public attitudes as to what really happened in before and during the coup. No US television channel has chosen to broadcast it, but it was aired in select theaters in the fall of 2003. (Where it is shown under the name "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised")
However, Chávez opponents say the film is manipulative and deceptive (see ) and cast serious doubts on its validity as a historical record.