He saw himself as a revolutionary and a liberator - his critics saw a demagogue and a bully. The Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has succumbed to cancer at the age of 58.
"It still smells of sulfur in here," Hugo Chavez declared in September 2006 at the lectern of the UN General Assembly. "The devil was here yesterday. And he talked as if the world belonged to him."
He meant then-US President George W. Bush. Chavez was known for his crude words and flowery metaphors. His firebrand rhetoric was directed largely at the US and its "North American imperialism."
With his belligerent declarations against "neoliberalism" he won the hearts not only of his voters but also of many left-leaning individuals throughout the world. For many, he was both a "holy man" and a media star, an image Chavez cultivated through his own television show. It certainly helped his political career. To accuse him of simple political calculation would be to do him an injustice. Chavez had a mission, and his personal background lent credibility to his fiery words.
A man of the people
Although no "caudillo" - at least, not in the strictest sense of this word, long used to describe Latin America's blustering strongmen - Hugo Chavez did belong to the long line of charismatic military leaders that have ruled large swaths of Latin America since the wars of independence 200 years ago. Nowhere did caudillos dominate as comprehensively as in the broad river lowlands of the Orinoco. It was here that Chavez was born on July 28, 1954.
Six months of heat and six months of rain, with floods of up to a meter, are what shape this Andean landscape and its inhabitants. Herders, whose violent past and rough manners fit well with the wild romance of their surroundings, add color to the Venezuelan identity, and contribute to the country's canon of traditional songs.
Chavez's parents were schoolteachers, who encouraged their children to embrace education as a means to a better life. Their son enrolled at the Academy of Military Sciences, where during his student years he became increasingly interested in politics. After graduation he entered military service, and in 1983, at the age of 30, he and some other officers founded "EBR-200," the Revolutionary Bolivarian Army-200. The name was a reference to "El Libertador," Simon Bolivar, who singlehandedly freed the northern territories of South America from Spanish colonial leaders - and whose ideals Chavez espoused.
Dissatisfied with political ideologies that clearly ignored the needs of the broader population, in 1992 his group attempted a coup against then President Carlos Perez, which failed. Chavez was imprisoned, but not long afterwards Perez was impeached and his successor, Rafael Caldera, freed Chavez in 1994.
Chavez then actively sought to establish political alliances within Latin America and met, among others, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro. In 1996 Chavez founded his left-leaning party, the Fifth Republic Movement, in order to run as a candidate in the 1998 elections.
President of the poor
Initially treated as an outsider, Chavez quickly became popular. He translated his socialist message into the language of the poor, and won their hearts. For the first of four times, and with a clear majority, they elected him their president.
He got down to business as soon as he took office. His government nationalized important economic sectors, in particular that of the oil industry. These revenues funded social programs, ensured medical support for the destitute, and guaranteed basic education for children. In 2001 he enacted a land reform to revive fallow lands. To this day nearly five million hectares have been placed under state ownership, and assigned for use by poor farmers and herdsmen.
An icon of the Latin American Left
With his radical move away from free markets and back to the muddle of private enterprise and expansive social-welfare programs that was the predominant Latin American economic model of the 1980s, he caused a political stir with transnational consequences, according to the Colombian social historian Andres Otalvaro. Throughout the region a number of left-leaning presidents effectively followed in Chavez' footsteps.
Yet for a large part of the Latin American populace, Chavez' influence went far beyond the establishment of a new economic order. He forged for them a new identity, one that emotionally allied the northern part of South America against alleged North American hegemony. Chavez was one of the driving forces behind the founding of foreign policy alliances such as CELAC (the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States), ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas), and UNASUR (the Union of South American Nations) as a form of counterweight against the North.
Even though Chavez had no problem exchanging Venezuelan oil for the US dollars of his ideological foe, his anti-US stance sometimes verged on the maniacal. He engaged in mischief, distributing heating oil to poor US citizens in the winter of 2006-07. And in response to the "Axis of Evil" tag coined by his arch-enemy, George W. Bush, Chavez, together with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, unconvincingly declared themselves an "Axis of Good."
But his tirades - in one of which he portrayed Israel as the "murderous arm" of the US - and his country's "friendship" with Iran began to take a darker turn. During his first presidential campaign he promoted the views of an Argentinean named Norberto Ceresole who, in addition to his left-wing militarism, also publicly denied the Holocaust. The Jewish community in Venezuela felt threatened by anti-Semitic proclamations from media sources close to the government.
The verdict on Chavez's domestic policy must be equally ambivalent. Under his tenure many Venezuelans fell to levels of extreme poverty. During his presidency, half the population could still be considered "poor," just as they had been in the past. Despite land reforms, 70% of all foodstuffs were imported. There has been no alteration to the fact that the Venezuelan economy still remains dependent on its oil revenue, and thus on international oil prices.
Corruption and organized crime were also never brought under control. Even more disturbingly, the murder rate in Venezuela has actually tripled since Chavez took office in 1999.
Hugo Rafael Chavez founded the "21st-century socialism" that subsequently spread all across Latin America. It may be a long time before we see another personality of comparable charisma on the political scene. For this alone, Chavez will remain an icon to many of his countrymen - despite his shortcomings.