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Chavez: From abject poverty to Venezuela’s presidency

TOPSHOTS Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez waves a Venezuelan flag while speaking to supporters after receiving news of his reelection in Caracas on October 7, 2012. (AFP PHOTO/JUAN BARRETO)

Hugo Chavez was re-elected as president in South America’s biggest oil exporter Venezuela Sunday, potentially extending the length of his self-styled socialist revolution to 20 years.

Here are some key facts about Chavez:

- Born to a poor family in Venezuela’s plains, or “llanos,” on July 28, 1954, Chavez once aspired to be a painter and then a professional baseball player in the U.S. Major Leagues.

- His impoverished but happy childhood in rural Venezuela often feeds the folksy anecdotes he uses when talking about politics. Combined with formidable charisma, his humble roots have helped him forge a strong emotional connection with many of Venezuela’s poor.

- A former lieutenant colonel, Chavez spent much of his later military career conspiring with other leftist soldiers to overthrow the traditional political order.

- He led a 1992 coup against then-President Carlos Andres Perez that failed but launched his political career. A brief, self-effacing speech while he was being led away to jail – wearing his trademark red beret – electrified many Venezuelans and propelled him toward the presidency as a populist leader.

- After being pardoned, Chavez toured the country before winning a 1998 election and taking office early the following year. For many poor voters, he symbolized a fresh start after decades of governments that paid scant attention to their needs and were widely seen as self-serving and corrupt.

- Private media and business leaders remained staunchly against Chavez, however, and in 2002 a group of opposition politicians and dissident troops staged a coup. Chavez was arrested and flown to a military base on a Caribbean island.

- Two days later, loyal military officers and protests by supporters swept him back to power. Chavez accuses the United States of being behind the putsch, and says he feared he was about to be killed. The drama of his return as president has since taken on almost religious overtones for some passionate “Chavistas.”

- Chavez has enjoyed wide backing among the poor majority partly thanks to massive state spending to expand health and education programs, financed by income from oil exports. He has also cultivated support by confronting the U.S., which he denounces as a decadent, war-mongering empire.

- Several times, he has threatened to stop oil shipments to the United States – including when he accused then-U.S. President George W. Bush of backing the 2002 coup – but has never done so. The United States remains Venezuela’s biggest oil export market, but Chavez has also increased fuel sales to China and anti-Western states such as Belarus, Iran and Syria.

- Inspired by his friend and mentor, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Chavez has taken Venezuela down an increasingly radical path, nationalizing much of the economy and running the government with a micro-managing – and many say autocratic – style.

- Chavez has a populist style, using colorful and strong language that draws on the macho culture of the “llanos” of his youth, and the barracks of his military career. Like Fidel Castro, he is well known for long-winded televised speeches that often drag on late into the night. This year, he broke his own record by speaking for nearly 10 hours.

- Chavez announced in mid-2011 that he was being treated for cancer. He had three operations in Cuba, where two malignant tumors were removed, but declared himself completely cured in July, just before the campaign’s final stage. Doctors say at least two years must pass without a recurrence before a cancer patient can be given a clean bill of health.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 09, 2012, on page 11.

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