“Chavez masterfully exploits the disenchantment of people who feel excluded ... and he feeds on controversy whenever he can,” Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka wrote in their book “Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela’s Controversial President.”
Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born on July 28, 1954, in the rural town of Sabaneta in Venezuela’s western plains. He was the son of a schoolteacher father and was the second of six brothers. His mother was also a schoolteacher who met her husband at age 16.
Hugo and his older brother Adan grew up with their grandmother, Rosa Ines, in a home with a dirt floor, mud walls and a roof made of palm fronds.
Chavez was a fine baseball player and hoped he might one day pitch in the U.S. major leagues. When he joined the military at age 17, he aimed to keep honing his baseball skills in the capital.
But between his army duties and drills, the young soldier immersed himself in the history of Bolivar and other Venezuelan heroes who had overthrown Spanish rule, and his political ideas began to take shape.
Chavez burst into public view in 1992 as a paratroop commander leading a military rebellion that brought tanks to the presidential palace. When the coup collapsed, Chavez was allowed to make a televised statement in which he declared that his movement had failed “for now.” The speech, and those two defiant words, launched his career, searing his image into the memory of Venezuelans.
Two years later, he and other coup prisoners were released from prison, and President Rafael Caldera dropped the charges against them.
After organizing a new party, Chavez ran for president in 1998, pledging to clean up Venezuela’s entrenched corruption and shatter its traditional two-party system. At age 44, he became the country’s youngest president in four decades of democracy with 56 percent of the vote.