“Eventually, he came to see that he could succeed through democratic processes,” Miquilena later said. “Chavez embraced democracy out of practical considerations, not theoretical ones. He came around to the idea of participating in elections for a simple reason: He believed that he could win.”
Once in office, Mr. Chavez proved to be idiosyncratic and unpredictable. A natural showman, he sold his new government to the masses through his frequent speeches and the Sunday talk show in which he served as both host and guest, “Alo, Presidente,” or “Hello, Mr. President.” During the show, which could last as long as seven hours, Mr. Chavez would recount his childhood, scold his ministers, sing folk songs and announce major policy decisions.
He began neighborhood “missions” that offered literacy training in poor areas, posted doctors in crowded slums and opened state-operated markets offering subsidized food. The government claimed that under Mr. Chavez, poverty in Venezuela was reduced to 30 percent of the population from more than half when he took office.
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The president also advanced on what he called 21st-century socialism, which included the nationalization of hundreds of companies, the seizure of large land holdings, price controls and currency regulations. In speeches blaming capitalism for society’s ills, Mr. Chavez said his policies had made Venezuela a more prosperous country, independent of U.S. meddling and influence.
But throughout his presidency, Venezuela’s economy was plagued by blackouts, food shortages and a lack of investment, as government interventions, from price controls to the seizures of land and companies, squelched private enterprise.
Though his government was blessed by historically high oil prices, with a barrel hitting $150 in 2008, the economy in Venezuela expanded by about 3 percent a year through his presidency, while much of Latin America boomed.
Analysts who closely tracked Venezuela said that in his long presidency, Mr. Chavez had failed to bring sustainable growth and make long-lasting improvements to modernize his country.
“Chavez deserves credit for putting his finger on the real legitimate grievances that many Venezuelans felt,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington think tank Inter-American Dialogue. “Where he failed was in constructing alternatives that really produced results.”
Shifter also said that although Mr. Chavez promised a clean break from the political machinations of the past, his government was marked by old-fashioned patronage and authoritarianism.