Hugo Chavez, fiery Venezuelan leader, dies at 58

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Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born on July 28, 1954, in the rural town of Sabaneta in Venezuela’s western plains. He was the son of a schoolteacher father and was the second of six brothers. His mother was also a schoolteacher who met her husband at age 16.

Hugo and his older brother Adan grew up with their grandmother, Rosa Ines, in a home with a dirt floor, mud walls and a roof made of palm fronds.

Chavez was a fine baseball player and hoped he might one day pitch in the U.S. major leagues. When he joined the military at age 17, he aimed to keep honing his baseball skills in the capital.

But between his army duties and drills, the young soldier immer
sed himself in the history of Bolivar and other Venezuelan heroes who had overthrown Spanish rule, and his political ideas began to take shape.

Chavez burst into public view in 1992 as a paratroop commander leading a military rebellion that brought tanks to the presidential palace. The coup collapsed and the plotters were imprisoned.

When Chavez was allowed to speak on television, he said his movement had only failed “for now.” Chavez’s short speech, and especially those two defiant words, seared him into the memory of Venezuelans and became a springboard for his career.

President Rafael Caldera, long an advocate of political reconciliation, dropped charges against Chavez and other coup plotters in 1994 and released them from prison.

Chavez then organized a new political party and ran for president in 1998, pledging to clean up Venezuela’s entrenched corruption and shatter its traditional two-party system. At age 44, he became the country’s youngest president in four decades of democracy with 56 percent of the vote.

After he took office on Feb. 2, 1999, Chavez called for a new constitution, and an assembly filled with his allies drafted the document. Among various changes, it lengthened presidential terms from five years to six and changed the country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Chavez was re-elected in 2000 in an election called under the new constitution. His increasingly confrontational style and close ties to Cuba, however, disenchanted many of the middle-class supporters who had voted for him, and the next several years saw bold attempts by opponents to dislodge him from power.

In 2002, he survived a short-lived coup, which began after large anti-Chavez street protests ended in shootings and bloodshed. Dissident military officers alarmed by Chavez’s growing ties to Cuba detained the president and announced he had resigned. But within two days, he returned to power with the help of military loyalists amid massive protests by his supporters.

Chavez emerged a stronger president. He defeated an opposition-led strike that paralyzed the country’s oil industry and fired thousands of state oil company employees.

The coup also turned Chavez more decidedly against the U.S. government, which had swiftly recognized the provisional leader who briefly replaced him. He created political and trade alliances that excluded the U.S., and he cozied up to Iran and Syria in large part, it seemed, due to their shared antagonism toward the U.S. government.

Despite the souring relationship, Chavez kept selling the bulk of Venezuela’s oil to the United States.

By 2005, Chavez was espousing a new, vaguely defined “21st-century socialism.” Yet the agenda didn’t involve a sudden overhaul to the country’s economic order, and some businesspeople continued to prosper. Those with lucrative ties to the government came to be known as the “Bolivarian bourgeoisie.”

After easily winning re-election in 2006, Chavez began calling for a “multi-polar world” free of U.S. domination, part of an expanded international agenda. He boosted oil shipments to China, set up joint factories with Iran to produce tractors and cars, and sealed arms deals with Russia for assault rifles, helicopters and fighter jets. He focused on building alliances throughout Latin America and injected new energy into the region’s left. Allies were elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and other countries.

Chavez also cemented relationships with island countries in the Caribbean by selling them oil on preferential terms while severing ties with Israel, supporting the Palestinian cause and backing Iran’s right to a nuclear energy program.

All the while, Chavez emphasized that it was necessary to prepare for any potential conflict with the “empire,” his term for the United States.

He told the AP in 2007 that he loved the movie “Gladiator.”

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