In the battles Chavez waged at home and abroad, he captivated his base by championing his country’s poor.
“This is the path: the hard, long path, filled with doubts, filled with errors, filled with bitterness, but this is the path,” Chavez told his backers in 2011. “The path is this: socialism.”
On television, he would lambast his opponents as “oligarchs,” scold his aides, tell jokes, reminisce about his childhood, lecture Venezuelans on socialism and make sudden announcements, such as expelling the U.S. ambassador or ordering tanks to Venezuela’s border with Colombia.
Chavez carried his in-your-face style to the world stage as well. In a 2006 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he called President George W. Bush the devil, saying the podium reeked of sulfur after the U.S. president’s address.
At a summit in 2007, he repeatedly called Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a fascist, prompting Spain’s King Juan Carlos to snap, “Why don’t you shut up?”
Critics saw Chavez as a typical Latin American caudillo, a strongman who ruled through force of personality and showed disdain for democratic rules. Chavez concentrated power in his hands with allies who dominated the congress and justices who controlled the Supreme Court.
“El Comandante,” as he was known, insisted Venezuela remained a vibrant democracy and denied charges that he sought to restrict free speech. But some opponents faced criminal charges and were driven into exile. His government forced the opposition-aligned television channel, RCTV, off the air by refusing to renew its license.
While Chavez trumpeted plans for communes and an egalitarian society, his rhetoric regularly conflicted with reality. Despite government seizures of companies and farmland, the balance between Venezuela’s public and private sectors changed little during his presidency.
Nonetheless, Chavez maintained a core of supporters who stayed loyal to their “comandante” until the end.