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Who Hugo Chávez Was and Why He Matters

He was both loved and hated, and now he's gone: Hugo Chávez, who led a socialist revolution in Venezuela and ruled the country for 14 years, died of cancer yesterday after a two-year struggle.

The incredibly polarizing Chávez championed the poor and made profound changes in Venezuela's class divisions.

He is being passionately mourned by many Venezuelans.

Crying for Hugo

People are taking to the streets to honor his memory.

Throngs of people straining to see and photograph Hugo Chavez's coffin as it traveled through the streets of Caracas.

Throngs of people straining to see and photograph Hugo Chavez's coffin as it traveled through the streets of Caracas. (Sortu / Flickr)

But not everyone embraced his reforms, and many question whether Chávez was actually good for the country.

Here's a bit more about Chávez and why he matters.

Who was Hugo Chávez?

Hugo Chavez between the flags

The son of a schoolteacher, Chávez grew up in a small village in Venezuela.

In 1992, after attending University, he created the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement and tried to overthrow then-President Carlos Perez.

He spent two years in prison.

But he remained popular and officially started the Fifth Republic Movement in 1997. The next year, he ran for president and won easily.

The Fifth Republic Movement is the key to understanding Chávez's political identity. Chávez secretly started the movement in the 1980's and turned it into a political party when he decided to run for president. The Fifth Republic Movement rejected democracy and existing political structure and favored revolution and independence.


That political philosophy led many to embrace Chávez, and others to reject him.

Venezuela 101

Venezuela lies on the northern coast of South America, next to Colombia and above Brazil.

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Here are some interesting facts about the country:

  • It was colonized by Spain in 1522, and became independent 300 years later.
  • Most of the population today lives in cities.
  • Its main export is oil. Others include coffee and cocoa.
  • Other natural resources include petroleum, natural gas, and gold.
  • It is home to the highest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls.
  • Six Venezuelans have won Miss Universe.

Who's pro-Chávez?

Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro at Museo Casa de Ernesto Che Guevara, Alta Gracia, Argentina

Hugo Chávez is a hero to those who saw him as a champion of the little people and an opponent of U.S. influence in Venezuela and Latin America.

He was perhaps closest with Fidel Castro, the longtime leader of Cuba. Chávez threw birthday parties for him and even tweeted in his favor:


The New York Times translated the tweet as:

"His energy and clarity are impressive! He is an example of revolutionary will and determination for all! Viva Fidel"

That friendship also reveals a lot about Chávez and his supporters. Like Castro, Chávez was strongly anti-U.S. and anti-capitalism. He focused on making Venezuela independent and used Venezuela's profits from oil to persuade other Latin American countries to not depend on U.S. aid.

His aid to the poor in Venezuela and other Latin American countries resulted in many followers. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon praised his efforts:

"President Chávez spoke to the challenges and aspirations of the most vulnerable Venezuelans."

Who's anti-Chávez?

Pat Robertson was Here.

The same anti-U.S. and anti-capitalist tendencies that made Chávez popular also resulted in many opponents, who accuse him of being a dictator who did little to help his people and much to keep them down.

Chávez did sour relations between Venezuela and the U.S., to the point where the Venezuelan government even claimed that the U.S. infected Chávez with cancer.

Many people in and out of Venezuela rejected Chávez as well, thinking of him more as a dictator than a populist president.

The reality is more complicated:

What will his legacy be?

Acto y ofrenda floral de solidaridad con Venezuela, la revolución bolivariana y el presidente Hugo Chávez

There's no doubt that Chávez has changed Venezuela forever. But what exactly has that change been, and will it stick?

So far, Chávez's legacy of distancing Venezuela from the United States seems likely to remain intact. Though upon learning of his death, President Obama gave this statement:

"At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez's passing the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government."

Before he died, Chávez stipulated that Vice President Maduro act as President for the next thirty days until a new election can be held. Whether Maduro will win election, though, is an open question. Will his policies continue? It's unclear.

Perhaps the longest lasting impact of Chávez's rule will be on the economy. He greatly reduced income inequality and illiteracy.

However, that same use of oil funds weakened Venezuela's economy. The Venezuelan currency is devalued, and inflation is rampant.

Some also believe that his dictatorial style weakened the country's constitution.

More on his legacy, in a nutshell:

What lies ahead for Venezuela?

For the next few days, Venezuela will be consumed with preparing for Chávez's funeral Friday.

Many, though, are already eying Venezuela's future.

Everyone from the U.S. to Russia is hoping that the absence of Chávez will allow Venezuelan oil production to rise and generate more profits.

U.S. Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, thinks that Venezuelan-U.S. relations will improve:

"Hugo Chávez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear. His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator.
Venezuela once had a strong democratic tradition and was close to the United States. Chávez's death sets the stage for fresh elections. While not guaranteed, closer U.S. relations with (this) key country in our Hemisphere are now possible."

Maduro is suggesting that outside interests - the U.S. in particular - are plotting to take over Venezuela and reverse its socialist revolution. Many believe that this type of polemic will stir up violence in the country as Venezuela prepares for elections.

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Who Hugo Chávez Was and Why He Matters

Susannah Griffee

Susannah is an NYU student from Memphis who has interned at USA Today College, Games.com, The New Yorker, The New York Times, NBC, and Vogue, as well as in the U.S. House of Representatives. Follow: @susannahgriffee.

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