Why Did Venezuelans Elect Hugo Chavez President?

History Hit Podcast with Micheal Tarver

4 mins

18 Sep 2018

Image credit: Victor Soares/ABr

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.

Today, the former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is remembered by many as a strongman, whose authoritarian governance helped to bring about the economic crisis engulfing the country. But in 1998 he was elected to the position of president through democratic means and was hugely popular with ordinary Venezuelans.

To understand how he became so popular it is helpful to consider events in the country in the two-and-a-half decades preceding the 1998 election. 

The Arab oil embargo and the rise and fall of global petroleum prices

In the 1970s, Arab members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo on the United States, Britain and other countries perceived as supporting Israel, leading to the rapid rise of petroleum prices around the world.

As a petroleum exporter and a member of OPEC itself, Venezuela suddenly had a lot of money coming into its coffers.

And so the government undertook a lot of things that it had previously been unable to afford, including providing subsidies for food, oil and other necessities, and establishing scholarship programmes for Venezuelans to go abroad to be trained in the petrochemical fields. 

Former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez is seen here at the 1989 World Economic Forum in Davos. Credit: World Economic Forum / Commons

The then president, Carlos Andrés Pérez, nationalised the iron and steel industry in 1975, and then the petroleum industry in 1976. With the revenue from Venezuela’s petroleum then going straight to the government, it began to implement numerous state-subsidised programmes. 

But then, in the 1980s, petroleum prices declined and so Venezuela started to experience economic issues as a result. And that was not the only problem the country was facing; Venezuelans began looking back at the tenure of Pérez – who had left office in 1979 – and found evidence of corruption and wasteful spending among individuals, including the paying of relatives to undertake certain contracts.

When the money was flowing in, no one had really seemed bothered by the graft. But in the lean times of the early 1980s, things began to change.

Dan visited the Bodleian Library in Oxford, home to one and a quarter million historic maps. Aided by professor Jerry Brotton, together they discuss the significance of ancient cartography and look at some of the jewels of the collection.Watch Now

Lean times lead to social upheaval

Then in 1989, a decade after he had left office, Pérez ran again for president and won. Many people voted for him out of a belief that he would bring back the prosperity that they had in the 1970s. But what he inherited was a Venezuela in dire economic straits. 

The International Monetary Fund required Venezuela to implement austerity programmes and other measures before it would loan the country money, and so Pérez began cutting a lot of the government subsidies. This in turn led to an upheaval among the Venezuelan people that resulted in strikes, riots and the killing of more than 200 people. Martial law was declared.

In 1992, there were two coup d’états against the Pérez government – what are known in Spanish as “golpe de estado”. The first was led by Hugo Chávez, which brought him to the forefront of the public consciousness and won him popularity as someone who was willing to stand up against a government that was seen as corrupt and not taking care of the Venezuelan people.

This golpe, or coup, was put down rather easily, however, and Chávez and his followers were imprisoned. 

The military prison where Chávez was imprisoned following the 1992 coup attempt. Credit: Márcio Cabral de Moura / Commons

The fall of Pérez and the rise of Chávez

But by the following year, more corruption allegations had come out against Pérez and he was impeached. To replace him, Venezuelans once again electeda previous president, Rafael Caldera, who was by then quite elderly. 

Caldera pardoned Chávez and those who were part of that rise against the government and Chávez subsequently, and very suddenly, became the face of opposition to Venezuela’s traditional two-party system – which was seen by many people to have failed.

This system involved the Acción Democrática and COPEI, with all of the presidents prior to Chávez in the democratic era having been a member of one of the two.

A lot of people felt as though these political parties had abandoned them, that they were not looking out for the common Venezuelan, and they looked to Chávez as an alternative.

And so, in December 1998, Chávez got elected president.

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

What he brought to the Venezuelan people was the idea that a new constitution could be written that would do away with the privileges that the political parties had previously been afforded, and also do away with the privileged positions that the church had had in Venezuelan society.

Instead, he would bring in a socialist type government and a military that participated in the Venezuelan process. And people had high hopes. 

They believed that finally they had a president who was going to look for solutions to the questions of, “How can I help the poor?”, “How can I help the indigenous groups?” etc. So, after attempting a coup, Chávez ultimately got brought to power by the democratic process.