Caracas: After 14 years in power in which he has survived a coup and a bout with cancer, the indefatigable Hugo Chavez can still whip adoring crowds into a frenzy while inspiring loathing in critics at home and abroad.
The 58-year-old leftist firebrand, known for his colourful anti-American broadsides, won another six-year term on Sunday that will keep him in power in Venezuela until 2019, long enough to cement his so-called “Bolivarian Revolution” in place.
Shrugging off a strong opposition challenge that united behind the fresh-faced governor of Miranda state, 40-year-old Henrique Capriles, the populist Chavez showed that his best political weapon is the ballot box.
A highly polarizing figure, Chavez is popular with the long-neglected Venezuelan poor for his oil-funded health and education programmes but blamed by his critics for rising crime, corruption and inflation.
A charismatic orator, Chavez was weakened after being diagnosed with cancer last year. The operations and chemotherapy left him bald-headed for a while and he gained weight.
But Chavez declared himself cured in July and intensified his campaign this past week, holding massive rallies across the country, even dancing and singing in the rain before hundreds of thousands of supporters on Thursday.
“I feel great,” he told AFP last week. “If I didn’t feel strong enough, I wouldn’t be here.”
Inspired by Cuba’s Fidel Castro, he is a self-sufficient revolutionary, controlling the Western Hemisphere’s largest oil reserves and one of the most important foreign sources of crude for the United States.
But the firebrand has embraced many US enemies over the years, including Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
He famously called former US president George W. Bush “the devil.”
At first he was warmer toward President Barack Obama, but Chavez soon returned to type and started portraying the United States again as an evil imperialist power.
Born in 1954, Chavez is the son of two school teachers from the southwestern state of Barinas and studied at the Military Academy of Venezuela in Caracas. Though a devout Catholic, the Venezuelan leader divorced twice. He has four children.
In 1992, the then lieutenant colonel Chavez led a failed coup attempt against Carlos Andres Perez, who put his opponent into prison for two years — an imprisonment that turned the soldier into a hero.
Six years later, Chavez represented a left-wing coalition in the presidential election, which he won with 56% of the votes.
Chavez said he wanted another term to make his socialist agenda “irreversible.”
But the opposition countered that Chavez was only interested in staying in power for his own sake. The constitution was amended in 2009 to allow the president to seek multiple terms in office.
Chavez was himself the target of a brief coup in 2002 that sidelined him for 47 hours.
He survived a crippling two-month strike of the vital oil industry in early 2003 organized by the opposition and a recall referendum held later that year.
Chavez’s discourse is tinged with messianic overtones, leftist rhetoric and an almost religious cult to Bolivar, a 19th century leader of independence movements in several South American countries.
Chavez often peppers his lengthy speeches with references to baseball, his favourite sport, and an occasional crude joke.
He is omnipresent on Venezuelan national radio and TV, with his own weekly broadcast “Alo Presidente,” during which he takes phone calls from the general public and sometimes break into song.
Chavez has also become a fervent fan of the micro-messaging network Twitter and has more than 3.5 million followers.
Despite spending Venezuela’s oil money lavishly on social programmes, the longtime Venezuelan leader has failed to bridge the yawning gap between the country’s rich and poor.
In Latin America, Chavez promoted a leftist alternative to the US-led Free Trade Area of the Americas, and was a driving force behind the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
He also diversified trade by inking deals and buying weapons from countries such as Russia, Belarus and China.
Aside from being president, Chavez is commander of the armed forces and head of the country’s main party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. As such he set the agenda for his supporters in Venezuela’s single-chamber legislature, where they hold a majority.
Opponents also say the Supreme Court and the judicial branch is stacked with pro-Chavez judges. AFP