Profile: Hugo Chavez
The outspoken Venezuelan president is one of the most controversial, and most polarising leaders in Latin America.
Last Modified: 26 Jun 2011 11:52
Hugo Chavez has won the hearts of many poor Venezuelans and divided the country  [AFP] 

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez remains one of the most controversial, and most polarising leaders in Latin America today.

But the former tank commander, in power since 1999, still enjoys considerable popularity in Venezuela, comfortably winning the last presidential election with 65 per cent of the vote.

His Socialist party retained a substantial majority in the national Assembly after parliamentary elections in September 2010 but lost its two-thirds majority after the opposition made gains.


Chavez admitted in a television address that he had a cancerous tumour on June 30.

He said he had had a successful operation in Cuba to extract the cancerous cells and was on the road to full recovery. It remained unclear what the implications were for his political career.

His protracted absence from the public eye in the weeks prior to his speech led to much speculation that Chavez might be seriously ill. Questions were raised about who might replace him in the event of his death or resignation, given his tight grip on power.

He had planned to run again for the presidency in 2012, arguing that he needs more time to finish his socialist revolution. His detractors claimed the move would seriously threaten Venezuela's democracy.

Concerns over his health are also being raised as a potential hurdle to re-election.

Military beginnings

Chavez was born in 1954, the second son of two impoverished schoolteachers, in the small Venezuelan village of Sabaneta, Barinas.

At 17 he enrolled in military school, developing during his studies his belief in "Bolivarianism", inspired by the Latin American hero and Venezuelan revolutionary Simon Bolivar.

Chavez has long cited Simon Bolivar as
his political inspiration [GALLO/GETTY]

Ultimately, Chavez entered the army, serving for 17 years and eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He also co-founded a movement known as the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, named after Bolivar.

In 1992, during a period of repression known as El Caracazo under then president Carlos Andres Peres, Chavez, along with several army units, attempted to initiate a coup.

However, the coup faltered through lack of support, disorganisation and a catalogue of errors, culminating in Chavez's arrest and imprisonment.

Chavez spent two years in prison before being released and pardoned in 1994 by then president Rafael Caldera.

In 1998 he ran for the presidency, campaigning fiercely on a platform of working for the poor and ending government corruption.

His success in 1998 elections led to his launch, in 1999, of "Plan Bolivar", an effort to mend the nation's crumbling infrastructure and halt the privatisation of firms.

Coup survivor

He was re-elected in 2000, but in 2002 - following a union strike - hundreds of thousands of pro- and anti-Chavez supporters took to the streets, sparking violence in which several were killed.

Chavez has remained a close ally of both
Fidel and Raul Castro [AFP]

Lucas Rincon, commander-in-chief of the Venezuelan armed forces, then announced that Chavez had resigned. He was sent away to a military base, many of his reforms reserved and the National Assembly and the Venezuelan judiciary dissolved.

But the coup was short-lived - Chavez was ousted from office for just 47 hours. Angry protests by his supporters erupted across the country and soldiers loyal to Chavez toppled the self-declared government.

However, the coup government had been swiftly recognised by the US, which further soured already poor relations between Chavez and the administration of George Bush, the former US president.

Since then, the opposition has failed in repeated attempts to unseat Chavez through political means - an opposition-sponsored referendum for a recall of his presidency was decisively defeated in 2004, although it made gains in local elections held last November.

Popular among poor

Chavez's support among Venezuela's poor is high, and climbed further as he spread the revenue generated from the country's vast oil reserves, paying pensions, subsidising food and raising wages.

In one of his most popular programmes, Chavez built thousands of small clinics, including in the most remote corners of Venezuela's sprawling urban slums.

Cuba, a strong ally of Venezuela, also sent 15,000 doctors to staff the clinics in return for cheap oil being given to Cuba.

The programme has been expanded to include larger clinics with a wider range of health services.

But critics say that many of the clinics have since been closed, and point to rising crime and continued corruption in Venezuela.


Chavez remains as prominent - and controversial - on the world stage as he does in his home nation.

He is a close ally of fellow leftwing leaders in Bolivia and Cuba and has attempted to position himself as the main leader in Latin America, a counterweight to US influence in the region.

Smiles and handshakes - but Chavez has had
tough words for Colombia's Uribe [AFP]

But his rhetoric - he even has his own television show, "El Presidente" where he takes questions from callers - has often led to controversy.

The Venezuelan leader once called President Bush "the devil" and was told to "shut up" by the King of Spain during a summit speech, although the two later reconciled.

He also once implied Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, was descended from Hitler, a comment for which he later apologised.

In 2007, he played a key role in the release of several Colombian hostages, held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but was later embroiled in a war of words with Alvaro Uribe, the former Colombian president, over a raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador - one of Venezuela's main allies.

Chavez has sparked anger in Colombia by calling for dialogue with FARC, which has battled the government there for decades.

Al Jazeera
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