Venezuela's Chavez: An Outsized Personality, A Domineering Figure The populist president was an ally of dictators like Cuba's Fidel Castro and loudly opposed the United States. Chavez claimed capitalism was destroying the world and tried to transform Venezuela into a socialist state.
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Venezuela's Chavez: An Outsized Personality, A Domineering Figure

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Venezuela's Chavez: An Outsized Personality, A Domineering Figure

Venezuela's Chavez: An Outsized Personality, A Domineering Figure

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

We're going to look back now on the life of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. According to the country's vice president, Chavez died today. He was 58 and had been battling cancer. Chavez surged to power in 1999. He was a fiery leftist leader and a loud and provocative opponent of the U.S. He claimed capitalism was destroying the world and tried to transform Venezuela into a socialist state. Millions of Venezuelans loved him because he showered the poor with social programs.

NPR's Juan Forero tells us more.

JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Hugo Chavez was omnipresent during his years in power, his face plastered on billboards, his voice dominating the airwaves. His main vehicle was a Sunday TV show, "Hello, Mr. President," where he was both host and guest for hours at a stretch and ranted against American leaders, as in this program.


HUGO CHAVEZ: You are a donkey, Mr. Bush.

FORERO: There was, of course, a more playful side that resonated with the masses.


CHAVEZ: (Singing in foreign language)

FORERO: And Chavez also had a gift for whipping the crowds into a frenzy, pledging that their country would be great.


CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Born to a poor family in the Great Southern Savannah in 1954, Chavez joined the army. In 1992, he led a group of dissident officers who unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Venezuela's government.

Luis Miquilena, a prominent leader of the Venezuelan left who became Chavez's mentor, remembers convincing Chavez to give up plans for a violent overthrow after his release from jail.

LUIS MIQUILENA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He began to see that he could rise to power democratically and then put his ideas into practice, says Miquilena, who later served Chavez as interior minister.

Chavez won the presidency by a landslide in 1998, tapping into the Venezuelan people's rising discontent with two corrupt traditional parties. He was re-elected three times, his latest victory last October.

Former Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel says Chavez's greatest success was making those who'd been marginalized feel that they were part of something different.

JOSE VICENTE RANGEL: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Chavez took them out of the shadows, Rangel says. That's his magic.

Blessed with charisma, Chavez could be folksy and funny. And it helped him build an almost mystical connection with poor Venezuelans. They, in turn, defended him, helping him win back power after he had been briefly overthrown in 2002.

He used his political capital and a powerful base to launch what he called 21st Century Socialism: nationalizing companies, seizing farmland and forming alliances with like-minded leaders who opposed the United States.


CHAVEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: In speech after speech, Chavez also said that Latin America had liberated itself from the American imperialist yoke. Dreaming of uniting Latin America, the Venezuelan leader used his country's vast oil wealth to buy Argentine bonds and embarked on construction programs in Ecuador and Nicaragua.

He also helped poor Americans heat their homes, as touted in an ad hosted by Joseph Kennedy for CITGO, the gasoline retailer owned by Venezuela.


JOE KENNEDY: I'm Joe Kennedy. Help is on the way. Heating oil at 40 percent off from our friends at Venezuela at CITGO.

FORERO: Chavez particularly irked Washington by providing 100,000 subsidized barrels of oil each day for communist Cuba. In exchange, Fidel Castro provided Venezuela with doctors and intelligence agents while forming a close father-son-type relationship with Chavez.

An international left yearning for a magnetic leader was enthralled by Chavez, among them the director Oliver Stone. In Stone's glowing documentary on Chavez, the Venezuelan populist is thronged by adoring crowds and portrayed as an influential regional leader fighting American imperialism.

OLIVER STONE: He's a great example. If he succeeds, it'll be the first time in Latin American history, except for Castro, where he's led an entire region away from United States' economic control.

FORERO: The rosy gloss, though, often did not line up with reality. Chavez supported a violent guerrilla movement in neighboring Colombia according to internal Colombian government documents and interviews with former Colombian guerrillas. Some of his closest allies were also some of the world's most tyrannical autocrats, including Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

And at home, Chavez jailed some opponents and labeled his critics as degenerates and squealing pigs.

Michael Shifter of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue policy group said that despite the elections Chavez won, his government was far from democratic.

MICHAEL SHIFTER: But he, over time, concentrated power in his own hands. There were very little checks and constraints on his authority. He made all the decisions, no one else. Institutions like the judiciary were completely controlled by Chavez. And so in the end, he really was an autocrat and a despot.

FORERO: Chavez's interventionist economic policies also led to the region's highest inflation rate and food shortages. And on the international stage, those countries that followed Venezuela's lead were some of Latin America's poorest and least influential.

Chavez still had his fervent supporters. But in the end, Venezuela was in some ways worse off than when Chavez began.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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