Hugo Chávez Frías (1954-2013) was the democratically elected president of Venezuela for 14 years, from 1999 to 2013. He used the country’s oil wealth to help the poor.
By the numbers: The change during his rule (green for very good, red for bad):
- Life expectancy: 72.66 years to 74.08
- Infant mortality: 27.52 per 1,000 lives births to 20.18
- Literacy: 91.1% to 93.0
- Electricity: 3,508 kWh per capita to 3,061
- Inflation: 38.0% to 20.9%
- Unemployment: 11.5% to 8.0%
- Income inequality: 48.8 (1996) to 39.02 (2011) – GINI coefficient (USA = 47.7 in 2011)
- Poverty rate: 50.4% (1998) to 33.2% (2011)
- Living conditions: 0.656 (2000) to 0.735 (2011) – HDI (USA = 0.910)
- Murder rate: 25.0 (1999) per 100,000 to 45.1 (2011) (USA = 5.2)
- Exports to USA: 40.0% to 28.6%
- Foreign debt: $26.5 billion to $63.74 billion
The 1970s: Foreign companies like Exxon, Texaco, Shell and Gulf control Venezuela’s oil wealth. It does not benefit most Venezuelans, who are poor. The middle-class is small. The rich control the press. Elections are a choice between one party of the rich and another party of the rich. Chavez is a young army officer fighting left-wing guerrillas.
The 1980s: Venezuela has run up huge foreign debts. When the price of oil falls and it cannot pay, the IMF has it push through austerity measures and free-market reforms. That leads to the Caracazo riots and protests of 1989. The government kills between 400 and 3,000. By then Chavez has already founded the Bolivarian Revolution as a cell within the army.
The 1990s: In 1992 Chavez tries to overthrow the government. He fails but becomes a hero. In 1994 he is pardoned and let out of prison. He runs for president, winning in 1998.
The 2000s: He remains in office throughout despite an American-backed coup in 2002, a management-led strike at the oil company the same year and a recall election in 2004. He wins the recall and goes on to win the presidential election in 2006 and 2012. Only cancer stops him, killing him in 2013 after a two-year battle.
To help the poor he pushed through land reform. He provided cheap food and petrol. He built schools, medical clinics and housing. Cuba sent teachers, doctors and nurses in exchange for oil.
Venezuela is now more equal in terms of income than America.
Democracy: Chavez set up thousands of neighbourhood councils to give people a greater say. They now feel less cut off from the government, vote in greater numbers and most say Venezuela under Chavez has become more democratic.
Human Rights Watch, however, said in 2012 that Chavez and his men have threatened and punished judges, news reporters and rights defenders who oppose him.
Chavez sold cheap oil on easy terms to countries like Honduras, Cuba and Jamaica. He sold cheap heating oil to 500,000 poor Americans through Citgo, the American branch of the Venezuelan oil company. He visited the South Bronx in 2005 and later gave millions to its grass-roots organizations.
In 2009 he helped to found the Bank of the South, South America’s answer to the World Bank.
He was in bed with the FARC, the left-wing guerrillas of Colombia. He let them use Venezuela as a base and sold them guns for cocaine. Venezuela has long been part of the drug pipeline out of Colombia.