The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

State and Nation

March 5, 2013

Hugo Chavez, fiery Venezuelan leader, dies at 58

(Continued)

President Rafael Caldera, long an advocate of political reconciliation, dropped charges against Chavez and other coup plotters in 1994 and released them from prison.

Chavez then organized a new political party and 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.

After he took office on Feb. 2, 1999, Chavez called for a new constitution, and an assembly filled with his allies drafted the document. Among various changes, it lengthened presidential terms from five years to six and changed the country's name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Chavez was re-elected in 2000 in an election called under the new constitution. His increasingly confrontational style and close ties to Cuba, however, disenchanted many of the middle-class supporters who had voted for him, and the next several years saw bold attempts by opponents to dislodge him from power.

In 2002, he survived a short-lived coup, which began after large anti-Chavez street protests ended in shootings and bloodshed. Dissident military officers alarmed by Chavez's growing ties to Cuba detained the president and announced he had resigned. But within two days, he returned to power with the help of military loyalists amid massive protests by his supporters.

Chavez emerged a stronger president. He defeated an opposition-led strike that paralyzed the country's oil industry and fired thousands of state oil company employees.

The coup also turned Chavez more decidedly against the U.S. government, which had swiftly recognized the provisional leader who briefly replaced him. He created political and trade alliances that excluded the U.S., and he cozied up to Iran and Syria in large part, it seemed, due to their shared antagonism toward the U.S. government.

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