Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, president of Venezuela from February 1999 to the present writing in 2008, ranks as one of the most influential and controversial figures in post–cold war Latin America. Distinguished by his left-populist policies, strident anti-imperialism and anti-neoliberalism, promotion of Latin American integration—often bombastic and polarizing rhetoric—and volcanic energy, and the driving force behind Venezuela’s so-called Bolivarian revolution, Chávez elicits strong emotions among both supporters and detractors.
A key debate among scholars is whether his “democratic socialism” will lead to a populist dictatorship characteristic of Latin America in the 20th century, or whether his government can pursue a populist social revolution while maintaining the democratic political structures that have endured since the days of Rómulo Betancourt in the late 1950s.
Born on July 28, 1954, in the city of Sabaneta (pop. 20,000), capital of the southwestern plains state of Barinas, and of Spanish, Indian, and African ancestry, he was the second son of school teachers, receiving a good education. At age 17 he entered the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences, where he graduated four years later as a sub-lieutenant.
He attended Simón Bolívar University in Caracas, sharpening his political views on pan-American nationalism (“Bolivarianism”), socialism, and anti-imperialism. For the next 17 years he served in the military, rising from counterinsurgency paratrooper and platoon commander to lieutenant colonel and instructor at the Venezuelan Military Academy.
On July 24, 1983, on the bicentennial of the birth of Simón Bolívar, Chávez and his comrades secretly founded the Bolivarian Revolutionary Army (Ejército Revolucionario Bolivariano, or ERB-200) with the goal of launching a Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.
On February 4, 1992, in the midst of widespread popular disaffection for the government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez and his free-market reforms (manifest most dramatically in the massive street protests and riots known as El Caracazo, in February 1989), the ERB launched a failed coup attempt. Appearing on national television, Chávez became an overnight celebrity for his vigorous denunciations of the government’s corruption and cronyism before he and other coup leaders were jailed.
Two years later he was released in an amnesty by the government of President Rafael Caldera. Reorganizing the ERB as the Fifth Republic Movement (Movimiento Quinto República, or MQR) and campaigning on his Bolivarian platform, in December 1998 he won the presidency with 56 percent of the popular vote.
Once in office, Chávez embarked on a wide-ranging program of social, economic, and political reforms. In 1999, after seeing many of his initiatives blocked by the National Assembly, he oversaw the writing and promulgation of a new constitution, which granted the executive greater powers and renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (República Bolivariana de Venezuela). Reelected in July 2000 to a six-year term, he deepened the reforms of his first months in office.
In spring 2002 an opposition movement coalesced demanding his ouster, and between April 11 and April 13, he was briefly removed from office before massive street protests led to his reinstatement. In August 2004 he triumphed decisively in a national referendum intended to recall him, and in December 2006 won a second six-year presidential term with 63 percent of the vote. In a December 2007 referendum, voters rejected Chávez’s proposed changes to Venezuela’s constitution, hurting the momentum of his socialist program.