Mr. Chavez’s years in office were also marked by tumult. A series of measures giving the state more control over the economy led to mounting protests in 2002 that culminated with Mr. Chavez’s ouster on April 11 after about 20 people were killed in the midst of a march near the presidential palace.
The Bush White House publicly welcomed his removal, saying that Mr. Chavez’s heavy-handed governing style had led to his own undoing. But Latin American leaders called it a coup and demanded the president’s return. An interim government headed by a mild-mannered businessman, Pedro Carmona, and a group of high-ranking military officers began to dissolve after it closed the National Assembly and supreme court.
Mr. Chavez returned to power 48 hours after being forced to leave the presidential palace, put back in place by a loyal military unit and thousands of poor barrio dwellers who had flooded the city demanding his return.
Mr. Chavez would further strengthen his position against the opposition in December 2002 when an oil strike designed to dislodge him failed. Mr. Chavez fired more than 20,000 workers at the state oil company and brought the behemoth under his watch. A 2005 boycott of legislative elections by Mr. Chavez’s opponents made the National Assembly completely pro-Chavez.
Crackdown on opposition
Fully in control by late in the decade, Mr. Chavez became increasingly aggressive against his detractors. Opposition leaders were forced to flee the country, some were arrested after openly criticizing the president, and the government yanked the broadcast license of a television network, RCTV, that had been sharply critical of his governing style. The state also created a vast propaganda apparatus, made up of a half-dozen television stations, newspapers and community radio outlets, which offered endless praise of government initiatives.
The deteriorating situation in Venezuela led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an independent branch of the Organization of American States, to issue a blistering 300-page report in 2010 saying that Mr. Chavez’s government constrained free expression, the rights of citizens to protest and the ability of opposition politicians to function. It also outlined how the president held tremendous influence over the judiciary, with judges whose decisions the government didn’t like being fired.
Known for his personal attention to many of the details of governing, the president began to call for unusual policies that left some of his supporters scratching their heads. He moved Venezuela’s clocks back half an hour, citing the positive “metabolic effect” on the population. He accused Colombian traitors of having murdered Bolivar in 1830 and ordered a national commission made up of some of his ministers to open an investigation.
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In a speech in 2011, he even wondered aloud whether the absence of life on the planet Mars was because of capitalism. “I have always said, heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars,” Mr. Chavez said. “But maybe capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived, and finished off the planet.”
Mr. Chavez’s marriages to Nancy Colmenares and Marisabel Rodriguez ended in divorce. Survivors include three children from his first marriage, Rosa Virginia, Maria Gabriela and Hugo Rafael; and a daughter from his second marriage.
In the early part of his government, Mr. Chavez had met on an airplane with the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The two spoke for hours, and the conversation left a telling impression on the author.
“I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling and chatting pleasantly with two opposing men,” Garcia Marquez later wrote in a profile of Mr. Chavez. “One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country. The other, an illusionist, who could pass into the history books as just another despot.”