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Hugo Chavez: Dictator of the month, June 2005


Biography Hugo Chávez was born on 28 July 1954 to an poor family near the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in the small town of Sabaneta in the state of Barinas, Venezuela. His father is Hugo de los Reyes Chávez, who was a primary school teacher; his mother is Elena Frías de Chávez; he also had several brothers. Hugo's childhood was not an easy one, and his mother cruelly beat him regularly to the extent that his grandmother Rosines would have to hide him in a cabinet to protect him from her wrath. Young Hugo earned money in his childhood by walking the streets of the town and selling homemade candy; the family stayed in Sabaneta, where both his primary and secondary schooling was completed. It is thought that Chávez's childhood had a large influence in shaping his political beliefs in the future, especially regarding his affinity to the impoverished and his hatred of the wealthy.

As a teenager Chávez entered the Venezuelan Military Academy, which typically offers the opportunity of higher quality education to poorer but more ambitious young men. A former friend of Chávez , Lt. Colonel Luis Pineda Castellanos, describes him during his cadet years as a very correct and obedient student, but with a propensity for lying and an extreme phobia of swimming. Chávez was also interested avidly in baseball, singing, poetry and oration, being a born showman.

Early Career and Rise to Prominence

Chávez graduated with a Degree in Military Sciences and Engineering from the Venezuelan Military on 05 July 1975 and later went on to study for another Master's degree in political science at the Simón Bolívar University, but this course of study was never completed. After graduation from the Military Academy, Chávez started his long military career as a second lieutenant, rising through the ranks steadily and holding various positions, but reportedly generally avoiding active and dangerous assignments.

In 1989, the then-president of Venezuela Carlos Andres Perez accepted a $4.5 billion IMF loan to Venezuela, but the austerity measures that were imposed due to the loan became increasingly unpopular among the population. Widespread protests ensued, which the government violently cracked down on, leaving hundreds dead. Amid charges of corruption and due to poor economic conditions in the country, sentiment against Perez began to worsen.

On 04 February, 1992, Chávez led a military coup against Perez which ultimately failed, resulting in Chávez' capture and incarceration for two years. Chávez was later released by President Rafael Caldera in 1994, and entered politics by founding the Movement for the Fifth Republic.

Chavez takes power

On 06 December 1998, running on a populist platform of anti-corruption and pro-welfare reform, Chávez won the election with a 56.2% electoral margin, which was notably one of the largest margins in decades in Venezuela. When Chávez took power on 02 February, 1999, more than 80% of the population was living in poverty, so it is not surprising that promises of a redistribution of wealth was popular with a large number of poor Venezuelans.

In fact shortly after taking office, Chávez began profound reforms aimed at improving conditions for the poor, including instituting food and immunization programmes for children, as well as the symbolic move to turn part of the presidential palace into a high school for homeless children. Corporations that had once enjoyed large tax exemptions, were now compelled to pay taxes; populist Chávez styled himself as a Robin Hood figure to gain support with the impoverished.

In 1999, The constitution was re-written and a new Consitutional Assembly was created, with pro-Chávez representatives taking 120 of 131 seats, and giving him a clear majority. By Augusat of the same year a "judicial state of emergency" was declared, giving Chávez unchecked power to remove judges; later that month a "legislative state of emergency" was declared, leaving a seven man committee in charge of legislative functions; subsequently the Congress was barred from meeting.

In December of 1999 a nationwide referendum was approved to extend the term of the president to 6 years and impose a term limit of two terms on the president; the previous term limit had been one term. He was able to have legislation passed in November 2000 to allow him to rule by decree for one year, and ran for re-election in December 2000 and won; at the same time the new unicameral legislature was taken by 60% pro-Chávez representatives. During the election he attempted to centrallise the labour unions to one national union by referendum, but was unsuccessful.

Towards the end of Chávez's rule by decree in November 2001, he enacted a spate of new legislation. One of these "reforms" called for the expropriation of unused private lands with compensation for re-distribution to small farmers. Wealthy landowners felt themselves squeezed by the government and opposed this fiercely. The Chamber of Commerce of Venezuela also opposed these policies and attempted to organize general strikes in December 2001.

On 11 April 2002, Chávez was forced from power by a military coup d'état led by businessman Pedro Carmona. Popular support of Chávez manifested in widespread violent protests, ultimately led to a collapse of the coup, and Chávez re-claimed the presidency; about 100 people died during the rebellion. Since the coup attempt, Chávez has rigorously accused the US of orchestrating the coup, but there is no evidence suggesting that this is true. The four military officers that orchestrated the coup were eventually absolved of blame by the Venezuelan Supreme Court, terming the sequence of events a rebellion and vacuum of power, due to the fact that the resignation of Chávez had been officially announced by former head of the army, General Lucas Rincon Romero on state media.

On 02 December 2002 a general strike at the Venezuelan Oil Company PDVSA was cracked down by Chávez, resulting in his dismissal of 18.000 employees, and bringing the country's oil production and export to a standstill until February 2003. Poor sentinemt at the company had gradually increased due to the appointment of Rafael Ramírez Carreno to president of the company, a man who was regarded by many to be a Marxist and an enemy of management. Chávez later admitted to having a hand in the crisis at PDVSA in order for him to gain more control over the company and consolidate his power.

In August 2003, Opposition to Chávez moved to have him removed from office, gathering more than three million signatures of private citizens. This move failed when the petition was declared invalid, leading to a second petition of almost equal size that also proved ineffective.

On 15 August 2004 a public referendum was called to have Chávez removed from office, but almost 60% of the voting population opposed the move. However, results were later found to have irregularities, with more than 40% of the population not taking part in the vote, despite reports that voters had turned out in record numbers.

In May 2004 another coup plot was reported foiled by the Venezuelan government.

Freedom of the Press?

The Media in Venezuela is largely and overtly against Chávez, with very little mass media supporting him. However there are numerous reports of intimidation of the media by pro Chávez gangs that have been alleged to have issued violent threats against the media that does not support him. Chávez moved to start restrictions on the media with vaguely worded legislation that could allow him to suppress political content, although the initial scope of the law was restrictions on pornographic and violent content.

In mid-March of 2005 Chávez passed legislation further clamping down on the press, by broadening controls on how the press can report articles deemed "disrespectful" or "insulting" of the government. Sentencing for such transgressions ranges between 20 and 40 months incarceration, depending on the gravity of the offense. Moreover laws have been passed against the media, tightening controls on what would be considered slanderous, carrying sentences up to 30 months and what would amount to tens of thousands of US dollars in fines.

Numerous human rights organizations have expressed great concern over the incremental restrictions imposed by the Chávez regime on the Venezuelan media .

Supreme Court

To solidify his control over the Venezuelan Supreme Court, Chávez passed legislation in May 2004 to increase the number of Supreme Court Justices from 20 to 32 and appointing another 5 vacant posts, giving him a clear majority in the judicial branch of the government. He also allowed for the appointment of 32 reserve justices, all of which are loyal to him. It should also be noted that former justices were forced to resign after several "politically sensitive rulings". Many are very concerned that with the control of the courts, Chavez seems to have consolidated control over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government.

The Statesman

Chávez as a statesman has interesting allies, having a very close personal friendship with Fidel Castro of Cuba, and Venezuela provides oil to Cuba in exchange for skilled workers and other services. Similar to Castro, Chávez is seen as a darling to the left wing, especially left wing media in the United States.

Chávez also had ties to Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and not only staunchly opposed the invasion of Iraq but also went on a state visit to Hussein. He has also allied himself with Qaddafi in Libya, receiving a human rights award from him in 2004 during a state visit.

Not surprisingly relations with the USA are extremely poor, with Chávez publicly attacking President George Bush, and accusing the United States of attempting further attempts on his life. In fact his paranoia and pre-occupation of removal from office has reached such proportions that Chávez's rationality has been called into question by some.

Chávez has also recently bought MiG's from Russia, and territorial disputes with Colombia and Guyana now call into question whether Chávez is looking to start looking to his military for purposes other than defending the country. He has granted asylum to Colombian opposition terrorists, which indicates that perhaps he might also attempt to move against Colombia in other ways than outward military force. Moreover, Chávez has been known to support numerous far-left terrorist groups in South America.

The Left-Wing Fascist (sic)?

The National Guard or state police force in Venezuela has been accused of intimidation and bullying tactics of opposition, reminiscent of the Mussolini brownshirts in the 1930's. It is also troubling that nationalism and xenophobia are seemingly fostered by the government, combined with a push to have the population loyal to Chávez and not to the country. He has created a cult of personality about himself, creating the illusion to the masses that he is infallible; as a speaker Chávez has a bombastic style, literally working his audience up into a frenzy.

Chávez seems also to aspire to unite much of South America's sentiment against foreigners, notably the United States. He speaks of a continental vision, but clearly not without much influence from himself.

Personal Life

Chávez has four children, Rosa Virginia, María Gabriela, Hugo Rafael, and Rosinés, and has been married twice. He is currently separated from his second wife after cheating on her and being caught with a female government officer, Maripili Hernandez.

Chávez reportedly suffers from numerous health problems, such as colds, digestive disorders, asthma and kidney problems. He is very devoted to his family, which is evident that he has appointed numerous family members to key posts, including his father (Governor of State) and his brother Adan (Ambassador to Cuba and broker of many deals with Cuba).

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