Raised by his grandmother in a palm-leaf, dirt-floor house that regularly flooded in the rain, he swore he would never betray his childhood of poverty and deprivation.
His grandmother taught him to read and write before he entered school. From her he also learned Venezuelan history, mixed in with family legends, and of the world’s injustices, especially the economic straitjacket that strangles the poor, and of the solidarity that sometimes loosens its terrifying grip on their lives.
Growing up, Chavez traveled the world thanks to the illustrations and stories from a large four-volume encyclopedia given him by his father. In sixth grade he was chosen to give a speech to Bishop Gonzalez Ramirez, the first bishop to arrive to Chavez’s hometown. This introduced him to the joys of public speaking, and his audience to the pleasure of hearing someone with a born talent for it.
His boyhood idol was Major League pitcher Isaias Latigo Chavez, from whom young Hugo derived his nickname Latigo, which means “whip” in Spanish. The nickname was particularly apt for the later political Chavez, who regularly made others feel the lash and sting of his political observations. Although Chavez never saw his baseball idol pitch, he imagined his life on the mound by listening to games by radio. When his hero was killed in a plane crash, 14-year-old Hugo felt the world cave in on top of him.
To emulate his hero, Chavez joined the military, and thanks to his own talent as a pitcher, Hugo was admitted to the Military Academy in 1971. Four years later he graduated 2nd Lieutenant with a degree in science and military arts, and a diploma in counterinsurgency. Meanwhile, his political instincts drew him towards revolution.
Though his radicalization was drawn out and complicated, a key event occurred in 1975, when Chavez, carrying out a military operation in his home state of Barinas, discovered a black Mercedes Benz hidden in the brush. Prying the trunk open with a screwdriver, he discovered a load of books by Marx and Lenin. He began to read.
Other political influences were his brother Adam, a militant of the Left Revolutionary Movement, the humanist training he received in the military, Simon Bolivar, and (later) Fidel Castro. Each left a mark on him.
The assassination of Salvador Allende in 1973 provoked in Chavez a contempt for the Pinochet-style militaries hatched at Washington’s School of the Americas and spread throughout Latin America. On the other hand, Chavez also discovered Panama’s Omar Torrijos and Peru’s Juan Velasco Alvarado, who showed him a different model of the military – popular and loyal to the people, a radical departure from imperial assassins like Pinochet.
Rebellious by nature, Chavez soon discovered the corruption and abuses of his military superiors, and he did what he could to confront these. On the anniversary of Simon Bolivar’s death in 1982 Chavez and a small group of pro-Castro officers founded the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement 200, which began mostly as a study group, but later matured into a genuine political threat.
In 1989 came a spontaneous insurrection in Caracas’s poor neighborhoods, a rebellion against the austerity measures of Carlos Andres Perez’s government, which was crushed in fire and blood. Thousands were killed. Chavez and his Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement were given a strong push forward.
In 1992 Chavez and his men rose in arms, but the rebellion failed — “for now,” Chavez muttered famously — and he went to prison. His popularity grew. Upon his release, Chavez’s stature seemed to grow almost as fast as Venezuela’s corrupt political system collapsed. In 1998, he won the presidency with 56% of the vote, and from then on he was unstoppable. He won all elections for the subsequent 14 years (certified as the freest and fairest in the world by ex-President Jimmy Carter), while also surviving an oil industry lockout and a political coup backed by Washington.
A whirlwind of energy, Chavez lived a century in his 58 years. Sleeping but a few hours a night, he stayed up late to greet visitors, indulge his voracious reading habits, and prepare the way for all the battles yet to come. His exuberance offended the stuffed shirts of the bourgeoisie, whom he routinely embarrassed by breaking into song and dance, all the while advancing passionate political arguments none of them could answer.
He was, in short, very broadly cultured. In an age when heads of state know little and read nothing, Chavez fed his boundless intellectual curiosity with constant self-study, often calling Fidel Castro at 3 a.m. to discuss a book they were both reading. Never one to sacrifice the mind to the needs of the belly, he insisted that the Bolivarian Revolution be as much about ideas as material substance, and he warned that revolution could not be successful without the Venezuelan people becoming intellectually sophisticated.
His achievements were stupendous. He re-founded his country, freed it from colonial domination, thrust the invisible poor permanently into the national spotlight, redistributed oil revenues to benefit the Venezuelan majority, sharply reduced illiteracy and poverty (in 2011 alone the Venezuelan government handed out 146,022 homes to the poorest of the poor), radically improved public health, raised pensions and the minimum wage, mandated pay for housework, established health clinics, schools, cooperatives and popular councils throughout the country, all this while making the stagnant Venezuelan economy grow. He went far beyond European social democracy, developing non-capitalist areas with “social production companies,” co-management, cooperatives, and nationalizations. At the same time, he strengthened the hand of the oil-producing countries against the international oil oligarchs, derailed Washington’s “free trade” market of the Americas (substituting an alternative economic integration model based on mutual aid), and laid the foundation for a new brand of socialism in the 21st century when most people were loathe to even mention socialism.
All of this is another way of saying that he delivered real democracy to Venezuela for the first time ever, and was gratefully elected and re-elected by substantial majorities more times than any other figure in Latin American history. It now makes four years in a row that Venezuela has ranked first in the region in support for democracy, with 77% of the people registering approval of Venezuelan democracy, and 80% turning out to vote (in the U.S. turnout rarely rises much above 50%, and in mid-term elections, it’s far worse).
Not bad for a “dictator” who came to office amidst a sea of neo-liberal governments ruling over peoples sunk in cynical disregard for everything political.1
Atilio A. Boron, “Glory to the Brave Chavez,” www.rebelion.org, March 6, 2013 (Spanish).
Luis Hernandez Navarro, “Hugo Chavez, The Poor Boy From Sabaneta,” www.rebelion.org, March 8, 2013 (Spanish).
“Hugo Chavez Dead: Transformed Venezuela & Survived U.S.-Backed Coup, Now Leaves Uncertainty Behind,” Democracy Now, March 6, 2013.
Jeremy Corbyn MP, “Hugo Chavez – A Symbol of Hope,” Morning Star, March 6, 2013.
Grahame Morris MP, “President Hugo Chavez’s Critics Miss the Mark,” Morning Star, March 6, 2013.
Tariq Ali, “Challenging the Washington Consensus – Hugo Chavez and Me,” Counterpunch, March 7, 2013.
Charles Muntaner, Juan Benach, Maria Paez Victor, “Anti-Imperialist, Socialist and Immortal Latino-American – Ah, Chavez No Se Va” Counterpunch, March 7, 2013. [↩]