The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

March 5, 2013

Hugo Chavez, fiery Venezuelan leader, dies at 58

(Continued)

He invested Venezuela's oil wealth into social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor families, free health clinics and education programs. Chavez also organized poor neighborhoods into community councils that aided his party's political machine.

Official statistics showed poverty rates declined from 50 percent at the beginning of Chavez's first term in 1999 to 32 percent in the second half of 2011.

Chavez also won support through sheer charisma and a flair for drama.

He ordered Bolivar's sword removed from the Central Bank to unsheathe at key moments, and once raised it before militia troops urging them to be ready to "give your lives, if you have to, for the Bolivarian Revolution!"

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. Sometimes he would burst into baritone renditions of folk songs.

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 at Chavez, "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 as his allies dominated the congress and justices seen as doing his bidding controlled the Supreme Court.

Chavez insisted Venezuela remained a vibrant democracy and denied trying to restrict free speech. But some opponents faced criminal charges and were driven into exile. Chavez's government forced one opposition-aligned television channel, RCTV, off the air by refusing to renew its license.

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