Some officials who worked with Venezuela said they were put off by Mr. Chavez’s revolutionary, anti-U.S., anti-capitalist rhetoric.
“His discourse was political, ideological, about the liberation of the Americas, of fighting the forces of imperialism,” said the former governor of Pernambuco state in Brazil’s northeast, Jarbas Vasconcelos, who had tried to obtain Venezuelan financing for an oil refinery. “He imagined commanding a revolution in all the Americas against the United States.”
The young Chavez
Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born July 28, 1954, in the sparsely populated plains state of Barinas, the second of six sons of a couple who were teachers. He grew up poor and dreamed of playing major league baseball (he had a gift for pitching).
Young Hugo had another passion: reading and listening to stories, his imagination fired by tales about the great battles and the prophetic words of the revolutionaries who had founded modern Venezuela.
He had an influential tutor, Jose Esteban Ruiz, a leftist historian who introduced Hugo and his own sons to everything from Machiavelli to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract.”
“Put Marxism in your head, I told them,” Ruiz later recounted.
At 17, Mr. Chavez joined the Venezuelan army, and he graduated from its military academy in 1975. As a young army officer, he began to gravitate toward left-leaning superiors who spoke of the need to replace Venezuela’s two-party system.
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Mr. Chavez was assigned to an anti-guerrilla unit in the eastern state of Anzoategui, where the last vestiges of a 1960s-era guerrilla movement remained. He would later say the assignment was morally confusing.
“Why am I here?” Mr. Chavez would recount to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian-born, Nobel Prize-winning writer, in a 1999 interview. “On one side are peasants, dressed in military fatigues, torturing peasants who are guerrillas. On the other side are peasant guerrillas killing peasants dressed as military men.”
Forming a secret movement with a handful of other army officers, Mr. Chavez began to prepare for the day he would overthrow the state. In 1989, when a popular revolt in Caracas sparked by an increase in fuel prices was violently put down, Mr. Chavez and his co-conspirators decided their time would soon come. Their 1992 uprising quickly unraveled, but Mr. Chavez became a folk hero when the government gave him a moment to speak before the television cameras.