How Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez Went From Democratically Elected Leader to Strongman

History Hit Podcast with Micheal Tarver

3 mins

11 Sep 2018

Image credit: Embassy of Venezuela, Minsk

This article is an edited transcript of The History of Venezuela with Professor Micheal Tarver on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 5 September 2018. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

In December 1998, Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela through democratic means. But he soon set about dismantling the constitution and eventually established himself as a kind of supreme leader. So how did he make this leap from democratically elected president to strongman? 

Changing of the guard

Following his inauguration as president in February 1999, Chávez immediately set about working towards replacing the country’s 1961 constitution, the longest-serving constitution in Venezuelan history.

His first decree as president was to order a referendum on establishing a National Constituent Assembly that would be tasked with drafting this new constitution – a referendum that had been one of his electoral promises and which he overwhelmingly won (though with a voter turnout of just 37.8 per cent).

That July, elections to the Assembly were held with all but six of the 131 positions going to candidates associated with the Chávez movement.

In December, just a year after Chávez’s election to the presidency, the National Constituent Assembly’s draft constitution was approved by yet another referendum and adopted that same month. It was the first constitution to be approved by referendum in Venezuelan history. 

Chávez holds a miniature copy of the 1999 constitution at the 2003 World Social Forum in Brazil. Credit: Victor Soares/ABr

In overseeing the rewriting of the constitution, Chávez did away with the old system of governance. He abolished the bicameral congress and put in its place the unicameral (single body) National Assembly, which eventually came to be dominated by his political supporters. Meanwhile, the laws were changed so that, once again, presidents were involved in the selection of governors to head the country’s various states. 

Chávez also enhanced the military in terms of the spending and resources available to it, and began replacing the justices who were on the various chambers of the Venezuelan Supreme Court. 

And so, little by little, he changed the country’s institutions so that they were more or less firmly in his camp in terms of supporting policies that he wanted to implement.

“Dealing” with the opposition

Beyond that, Chávez also began to use the political institutions to deal with those who became the opposition –  a practice that has been continued by his successor, Nicolás Maduro. And not just political opponents but economic opponents too, including business owners who may have been leftist in ideology but were still not willing to completely give up control of their businesses. 

Soldiers march in Caracas during a commemoration for Chávez on 5 March 2014. Credit: Xavier Granja Cedeño / Chancellery Ecuador

In response to such opposition, the government began introducing various mechanisms to seize businesses that it believed weren’t following the socialist guidelines. It also began to seize land from particularly large estates that it argued wasn’t being used appropriately for the good of the nation.

Many of the steps Chávez took seemed small at the time. But when everything was done, the institutions that were designed to protect the democratic way of life in Venezuela were all either gone or had been completely reworked so that they were comprised entirely of so-called “Chavistas”, those who followed  Chávez’s ideology.