Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, born in Baranas State on July 28, 1954, died on March 5, 2013, after an almost two-year struggle with cancer. He last appeared in public on December 8, 2012, just before leaving for Cuba to undergo surgery there for the fourth time in an effort to arrest his illness.
In life, Chavez was almost a legendary figure. First elected to Venezuela's presidency in 1998, he was popularly re-elected three more times in 2000, 2006, and 2012. Candidates that supported Chavez's Bolivarian movement won National Assembly elections overwhelmingly. Chavez also won a 2004 presidential recall referendum, and three separate elections related to Venezuela's Constitution - all by large majorities.
Chavez was one of eight siblings born to school teacher parents who were so poor that he had to be raised by his paternal grandmother, whom he adored unreservedly. She encouraged his dedication to reading and the study of history.
An early infatuation with baseball took him to a military academy in Caracas on the theory that avenues were open there to a professional baseball career.
As an officer, he read historical and socialist material and came to admire Simon Bolivar and other progressive and revolutionary leaders, past and present, in Latin America. In 1994, Chavez went to Cuba where he met Fidel Castro. As a staunch opponent of the neoliberal economic policies that he saw crushing the hopes of millions in his country, Chavez began almost non-stop political barnstorming across Venezuela.
President Chavez applied himself to the task of converting the continental unity dreams of people like Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti into political and social alliances among Latin American and Caribbean nations. Under his leadership Venezuela took the lead role in promoting the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. Cuba was a close partner in this undertaking and worked with Venezuela also in the Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean Nations.
As president, Chavez took on the task of building in his country what he called, "21st century socialism." He gave strong backing in 2007 to the formation of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
During his presidency, the government developed an elaborate network of social and humanitarian projects referred to as "missions." Health care, education, literacy, housing, food distribution, and job-creating missions were among these.
Over the 14 years of his presidency, poverty, malnutrition, and infant mortality fell. School enrollment, professional education, life expectancy, food production, and nationalization of key industrial enterprises all increased.
Socialist-inspired achievements under Chavez reversed the process of redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich that had been going on in Venezuela. The income gap between rich and poor narrowed, Profits from the nation's nationalized oil industry were used to fund education and infrastructure projects that benefited millions.
Chavez called on his people and others in Latin America to look out for their own common interests, which would not line up with those of multi-national corporations headquartered in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Some of those forces, in the U.S. and elsewhere, showed just how alarmed they were about this when they backed a failed April 2002 military coup against Chavez.
Right up until the president's death, his political opposition has received financial backing from business interests in the U.S. and elsewhere who are unhappy about the direction Venezuela has taken. Sabotage, protest, and recall campaigns since then have been funded from outside the country.
In announcing Chavez' death on March 5, Vice President Nicolas Maduro told Venezuelans that, "In this historic tragedy, we call upon men and women to be vigilante of peace and of respect for the homeland. We, civilians, and military people, take on his legacy, his challenges, his undertaking. With participation and support by all the people, his banners will be raised up with dignity. Thank you, a thousand times, thank you."
The Cuban government issued an official statement which said, in part: "President Chavez has carried out an extraordinary battle throughout his short and rich life. We remember him always as a patriotic soldier in the service of Venezuela and the Great Homeland (Patria Grande), as an honest, clear, daring, and brave revolutionary fighter, as a leader and supreme commander who reincarnated Bolivar in order to complete what he could not finish...The Cuban people feel he is one of their most distinguished sons and have admired, followed, and loved him as one of their own; Chavez is Cuban also!"
Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and other Latin American countries are taking special steps to mourn Venezuela's fallen leader.
Photo: Hugo Chavez ScrapeTV