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Hugo Chávez: 1954—: President

Childhood In Farming Village

Hugo Chávez Frias was born July 28, 1954, in Sabaneta, a small farming town in Venezuela's western state of Barinas. Both parents were teachers, and they struggled to make ends meet, as Chávez recalled in an interview with Lally Weymouth of Newsweek. "I had to go with my father in the wee hours of the morning to help him fish to be able to eat. I sold sweets that my grandmother baked in the public square to have money to buy shoes and notebooks." Such a situation was not uncommon for much of Venezuela's population. Crude oil was a steady export out of Venezuela by 1930, but political and economic power remained in the hands of a small group of wealthy landowners and industrialists. For much of the twentieth century, caudillos, or military dictators, ruled from Caracas, its capital.

Chávez was a standout baseball player as a teen, a talent that helped gain him entry into the country's elite military academy. From there he joined the army and advanced through its ranks to head an elite paratrooper unit. Rankled by the corruption among the officer class—bribery and payoffs had become common currency at nearly all levels of Venezuelan life—Chávez formed a secret anti-corruption organization in the late 1980s with other disgruntled officers. He captured international attention on February 4, 1992, when he commanded a force of 12,000 troops in a coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez. The insurrection was suppressed, "but not before Chávez, in an unforgettable televised jeremiad, denounced the moral and economic rot at the heart of that once-so-hopeful republic. He became an immediate hero," wrote Benjamin Moser in Newsweek International. For leading the coup, he was sentenced to prison.

The notoriously corrupt Pérez regime eventually fell byitself through the impeachment process. Years later, Chávez explained his reasoning behind his bid for power. "Here was a country full of gold, oil, iron, aluminum, water and fertile lands, yet 80 percent of the population was living in poverty," he told Joseph Contreras in Newsweek International. Released from jail in 1994, he became active in the political organization that he and other soldiers had founded, the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement.

At a Glance . . .

Born July 28, 1954, in Sabaneta, Barinas, Venezuela; son of schoolteachers; married to María Isabel Rodríguez; children: Rosa Virginia, María Gabriela, Hugo Rafael, Raúl Alfonzo, and Rosa Inés. Education: Earned degree from Military Academy of Venezuela, 1975; Simón Bolívar University, graduate degree, international relations Military Service: Venezuelan Army; held rank of lieutenant-colonel by 1990; commander of paratrooper unit. Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement; Fifth Republic Movement.

Career: Graduated from Military Academy with rank of second lieutenant; joined Venezuelan Army, 1975; jailed for coup attempt, 1992; formed Fifth Republic Movement, political opposition group, c. 1992; elected president of Venezuela, 1998.

Addresses: Office— Embassy of Venezuela, 1099 30th St. NW, Washington, DC 20007.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Katie Burke (1953–) Biography - Personal to Galeazzo Ciano (1903–1944) BiographyHugo Chávez: 1954—: President Biography - Childhood In Farming Village, Became Legitimate Political Threat, Re-elected With Larger Majority, Significant Land Reform Law