The many faces of Hugo Chávez, and the challenge ahead for Venezuela

Hugo Chávez was public persona was crafted over years of domestic revolution and international rebellion. Boris Vergara/EPA

In Hugo Chávez, Venezuela has lost the most iconic leader the country has seen since Simón Bolívar fought for independence from Spain. The rest of the world has lost one of the most polarising leaders of the 21st century.

While some Venezuelan mourners took to the streets to express their grief yesterday, others will be looking forward to a new future without the divisive politician at the nation’s helm.

Venezuela without Chávez is hard to envisage while the flags still fly at half mast in Caracas. But we can look back to see how the man who famously stood up at the UN and called George Bush “the devil” came to inspire, and eventually divide, his people back home.

Chávez the student

Like many young men of modest means in Venezuela during the 1970s, Hugo Chávez chose to join the armed forces as a way of securing ongoing and stable employment.

Importantly, during the 1970s, Venezuela’s armed forces began a total reform of its officer training and education known as Plan Andres Bello. This plan was centred on reconstructing the National Military Academy into a university-equivalent institution that provided not just a military but also a liberal education to young officers.

Chávez was a member of the first graduating class at the military academy under the plan. This experience would mould his understanding of the legacy of Simón Bolívar, the role of the armed forces in Venezuela, and provide him with an ideological base to attempt a coup d’état in 1992.

Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, in November 2009, during his Sunday television and radio broadcasting program Mira Flores/EPA

Chávez the revolutionary

While Chávez and his comrades did not achieve the desired objectives of the operation on 4 February 1992, an unexpected and perhaps unintended situation arose which would catapult him into a more potent and powerful position than he and his conspiratorial group had envisaged.

When it became clear the coup had failed to take over the parliament and capture president Carlos Andres Pérez, Chávez was given the opportunity to publicly concede the failure of the operation and to implore other rebel battalions outside of Caracas to withdraw. He said:

Lamentably, for now, our objectives were not achieved in the capital. But it now is time to reflect that new situations will arise for the country to take the road toward a better destiny … I assume responsibility for this Bolivarian military movement.

In this short improvised speech, three things happened that would prove crucial to his rapid and successful rise to power.

First, he introduced the concept of his Bolívarian Movement and its military origins.

Second, his use of “for now” clearly articulated to the Venezuelan public that the failed coup was not an isolated event, and the Bolivarian Movement might well continue to challenge the tenure of the Fourth Republic.

Finally, the decision to allow Chávez to deliver his speech live on national television gave the Venezuelan population a face and therefore national figure to attach to this new movement that promised change.

Chávez the folk hero

Following his speech, Chávez achieved almost instantaneous folklore status in Venezuela. When he and his co-conspirators were jailed, the popularity of the movement increased.

The chaotic events of 1992 essentially destroyed the longstanding status quo of the two-party system in Venezuela. Upon his release from prison, Chávez enlisted the support of a range of left-wing ex-politicians and intellectuals.

From 1994 through to the presidential elections in 1998, Chávez and his supporters waged a long campaign to increase their support base, strengthen his public image and establish a political platform that would appeal to the general public.

While there were numerous variables that ultimately influenced the electoral result, it is clear that Chávez’s platform based on a complete abandonment of the old party system resonated with a considerable section of Venezuela’s poor and working-class populations, and led to his victory in the polls.

Chávez the president

When president Chávez took office in early 1999, he inherited a nation in crisis. In 1999, 42% of Venezuela’s population was classed as living in poverty and 16% in extreme poverty.

In line with the large increases in the price of oil on the international market, in 2003 the Venezuelan government began a process of expanding the state’s social policies through a dramatic increase in social expenditure.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, at the 20th anniversary of the 1992 failed coup. David Fernandez

The centrepiece of President Chávez’s campaign against poverty has been Venezuela’s social missions. These missions are state-sponsored, grassroots-oriented development programs, addressing pressing needs in various fields of human development such as education, health, culture, food security, job training and housing.

These policies have changed, for the better, the lives of many Venezuelans and are key to understanding the continued support that Chávez enjoyed during his tenure.

However, Chavez’s preference to nationalise key industries, such as the banking sector and oil industry, in order to strengthen state control was met with strong criticism from the business community, both nationally and internationally. These policies have, at times, threatened foreign direct investment in Venezuela.

And the Venezuelan government has continued to struggle with effectively combating steadily increasing crime rates in the nation. According to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory in 2011, 19,336 were murdered in Venezuela, with an average of 53 murder per day. This makes Venezuela one of the most violent countries in the world.

Chávez the divider

During his presidency, Chávez managed to mobilise a significant portion of the population under the banner of “Chavismo”.

Under that banner, Venezuela has undergone a complete political transformation both structurally and ideologically.

The radical changes attracted both popular support and staunch opposition but despite the many challenges to Chávez’s Bolivarian project, including his brief removal from power in 2002, these challenges provided opportunities that seemed to only reaffirm popular support for the revolution.

Supporters of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez mourn their leader’s death in Bolivar Square, Venezuela. David Fernández/EPA

Still, this mobilisation of the population has produced an extremely polarised society split into two camps: the Chavistas and the anti-Chavistas.

The grievences of the anti-Chavistas can be traced back to November 2000 when the Venezuelan Parliament approved an enabling law (ley habilitante) that greatly enhanced the authority of the president, and his ability to govern without interference from traditional parliamentary checks and balances. The enabling law approved extending temporary power of “rule by decree” for a period of one year to Chávez.

An official reason for the approval of the extraordinary law was to facilitate greater and more rapid policy reforms in the midst of an economic downturn. But it was not until near the end of the period in 2001 that Chávez rushed through 49 different laws aimed at furthering the objectives of the Bolívarian Revolution.

The National Assembly’s approval of enabling powers to rule by decree focused on specific policy areas, primarily in relation to property rights in the hydrocarbon and agricultural sectors.

When Chávez proposed the possibility of seeking similar control over public education, large sectors of society including the middle class and business elites began to express concerns about the objectives of the Chávez government. These events early in his presidency eventually triggered a series of powerful challenges to the Chavez government in the form of a coup d'etat, protracted oil strike and a referendum to recall Chavez from office.

The opposition in Venezuela is a highly organised and powerful force. The 2012 elections demonstrated that under the leadership of Henrique Capriles they have the potential to be a game changer in Venezuelan politics.

The challenge ahead for Venezuelan political leaders will be how they reconcile the differences between these two groups and encourage greater social cohesion in Venezuela.