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Hugo Chávez: 1954—: President

Became Legitimate Political Threat

Venezuela is one of the world's major exporters of oil. The country daily sends 1.5 million barrels to the United States alone. Still, the nation of 23 million has suffered under a moribund economy, with high rates of inflation and unemployment. By 1998, Venezuela, under President Rafael Caldera Rodríguez, was still suffering from a long-term recession. The country struggled to make its foreign debt payments when barrel prices on the world market fell. Venezuela also had a bloated public sector; nearly one in every three employed Venezuelans held a government job. Corruption continued: even middle-ranking government officials enjoyed such perks as chauffeurs for themselves and families. Tax evasion was widespread. There were estimates that 80 percent of customs revenues went uncollected because of bribery at the ports and borders.

Chávez formed the Polo Patriotico (Patriotic Pole), a coalition of 14 small parties, and decided to make a bid for the presidency under the banner of a "Fifth Republic Movement." His 1998 campaign tapped into the national mood of discontent and won widespread support. He promised great changes should he be elected, foremost among them an end to corruption. Concerning the powerful Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), or state-run oil company, he pledged to give it less financial support and make it more accountable. He called for a constituent assembly, and charged the country's past leaders and long-entrenched political organizations with selling the country's oil, gas, and mineral resources off to foreign investors. They alone profited from such deals, Chávez asserted, while the majority of ordinary Venezuelans did not. His speeches were sprinkled with quotes from Christ and Simón Bolívar, the hero of Venezuela's independence movement, but his opponents charged him with demagoguery. Chávez told Time International in November of 1998 that his foes were justified in smearing his name. "There's an offensive against us—painting me as Hitler or Mussolini, a crazed assassin," Chávez told reporters. "What they're really scared of is losing all that they're used to robbing from this country."

Chávez's supporters ranged from the poor to the left to the conservative business community in Caracas. He was called "El Comandante," and those who gathered for his political rallies often sported the trademark of his Fifth Republic Movement, a red parachutist's beret. In polling on December 6, 1998, he was elected with 56 percent of the vote to become the youngest president in Venezuelan history. He immediately began fulfilling his pledge to reform Venezuela entirely. In July of 1999, a constitutional assembly met and drastically reduced the powers of Congress. The assembly also began a process of judicial reform to rid the court system of corruption. Chávez also purged the Customs Service, and revenues at the country's major seaport, Puerto Cabello, doubled.

Chávez's promised new constitution was drafted and put to voters in a referendum on December 15, 1999. It was approved by 71 percent of voters. The changes were sweeping: Venezuela officially changed its name to the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela," stipends were granted for stay-at-home mothers, and university education became free. The power of Venezuela's political parties was also dramatically slashed. For this, Chávez was accused of decimating the country's democratic institutions, but he explained in an interview with Time that his goal was to bring "moral" as well as "electoral" power to Venezuelans. "Moral power is a restructuring of offices that already exist—the comptroller general and the prosecutor general," Chávez stated. "These institutions are supposed to be independent, but they're used for political purposes. They're appointed by Congress and serve as a shelter for corruption."

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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