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Globalization - Countries - Venezuela

Hugo Chavez: a Firebrand President
By Jorge Rueda Associated Press Writer April 12, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Hugo Chavez swept to power by promising a new era of equality in Venezuela -- but his anti-American rhetoric, military image and cozy relationships with international pariahs like Saddam Hussein often seemed a throwback to Latin America's darker days.

Chavez's three-year presidency came to an end Friday, when the military forced him to resign following an anti-government demonstration that descended into violence.

It was a stunning end for a leader who once enjoyed unprecedented popularity for pledging to end social inequality in Venezuela, a country where 80 percent of people live in poverty despite vast oil riches.

Many of those poor still see him as a hero. But other powerful allies -- labor groups and the military -- had become disillusioned with the 47-year-old leader.

Chavez arrived on the world scene on Feb. 4, 1992, when -- as an army paratrooper -- he led a military coup attempt that succeeded everywhere in the country except in Caracas, the capital. He was arrested but made a famous televised speech in which he told Venezuelans his struggle had been detained -- "for now."

Chavez was imprisoned. In 1994, then-President Andres Perez was impeached by Congress on corruption charges and replaced by President Rafael Caldera, who freed Chavez and fellow coup leaders.

In 1997, Chavez created his Fifth Republic Movement and in 1998 launched a presidential campaign with the support of minority leftist political parties. He won presidential elections that year with 56 percent of the vote.

Chavez charmed many Venezuelans with his gregariousness and refreshingly frank talk. But he also insisted on wearing his army uniform and red beret -- projecting an image that reminded many of Latin America's former military dictators.

He quickly consolidated his power, extending his own four-year term to 2006 and revamping the constitution, Congress and the courts in a series of election and referendum victories.

However, the moves caused class division and irritated foreign governments. Chavez assigned the military duties usually belonging to civilians, including social works, building roads and bridges and distributing food. He was criticized for rejecting U.S. help during disastrous 1999 flooding in Vargas State.

He alienated Washington with visits to Libya and Iraq, his close friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro, and his "neutral" stand in Colombia's civil war. And he angered the Bush administration by criticizing U.S. bombing in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Dissent began to grow within the military. Commanders who had fought Cuban-backed guerrillas in the 1960s and 70s resented his friendship with Castro. They were angered by his ties with leftist Colombian guerrillas -- including his denials that the rebels sometimes operated in Venezuelan territory.

Officers objected to Chavez's distancing of Venezuela from the United States, including a decision to suspend Venezuela's participation in regional military exercises. They were also troubled by reports that he was secretly arming neighborhood block committees known as "Bolivarian Circles," named after South American liberator Simon Bolivar.

In the all-important oil industry, Chavez was a proponent of higher prices and better discipline among members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. In 2000 he hosted the cartel's second-ever summit since its founding in 1960.

In part due to Chavez's urging, oil prices rebounded from lows of $10 a barrel. But businesses responded to his harsh leftist rhetoric by sending billions of dollars abroad.

It was Chavez's effort to tighten control over the state oil monopoly that triggered his fall. When he tried to appoint his loyalists to run the company, Petroleos de Venezuela, managers revolted.

Other labor groups, frustrated by $21 billion in back wages and pensions owed to workers, joined demonstrations that ended in violence Thursday. Thirteen people were killed and 110 wounded when National Guard troops and civilian Chavez supporters opened fire on the crowd.

After being ousted Friday, Chavez asked Venezuela's high command to allow him to go into exile in Cuba -- and the request was denied.

"He has to be held accountable to his country," said army Gen. Ramon Fuemayor.


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