Chávez's reforms have drawn both critical acclaim and bitter condemnation. He has alienated many Venezuelans, especially in the upper middle and upper classes, and widespread political repression and human rights violations have been reported under his rule. The severe controversy surrounding Chávez's policies spawned a transitory 2002 overthrow of Chávez, a 2004 recall attempt, and rumors and allegations regarding foreign conspiracies to overthrow Chávez via additional military coups, assassination attempts, and even military invasions. Nevertheless, Chávez remains a powerful figure in modern politics and a focal point for growing international resistance to the Washington Consensus and United States foreign policy.
Chávez took the presidential oath of office on February 2, 1999 with a mandate to reverse Venezuela's economic decline and strengthen the role of the state in the economy. Chávez's first few months in office were dedicated primarily to dismantling what his supporters deemed puntofijismo via new legislation and constitutional reform, while his secondary focus was on immediately allocating more government funds to new social programs.
However, as a recession triggered by historically low oil prices and soaring international interest rates rocked Venezuela, the shrunken federal treasury provided very little of the resources Chávez required for his promised massive anti-poverty measures. Consequently, in April 1999 Chávez set his eyes upon the one Venezuelan institution that was costly for the government but did little for the systematic social development that Chávez desired: the military. Chávez ordered all branches of the military to devise programs to combat poverty and to further civic and social development in Venezuela's vast slum and rural areas. This civilian-military program was launched as "Plan Bolivar 2000," and was heavily patterned after a similar program enacted by Cuban President Fidel Castro during the early 1990s, while the Cuban people were still suffering through the "Special Period." Projects within Plan Bolivar 2000's scope included road building, housing construction, and mass vaccination. The plan faltered at the end of 2001 with accusations and revelations of corruption by military officers, including both military officers who later rebelled against the president in April 2002 and officers linked to the president.
Chávez sharply diverged from previous administrations' economic policies, terminating their practice of extensively privatizing Venezuela's state-owned holdings, such as the national social security system, holdings in the aluminum industry, and the oil sector. However, although Chávez wished to promote the redistribution of wealth, increased regulation, and social spending, he did not wish to discourage foreign direct investment (FDI). In keeping with his predecessors, Chávez attempted to shore up FDI influxes to prevent an economic crisis of chronic capital flight and inflation.
Chávez also worked to reduce Venezuelan oil extraction in the hopes of garnering elevated oil prices and, at least theoretically, elevated total oil revenues, thereby boosting Venezuela's severely deflated foreign exchange reserves. He extensively lobbied other OPEC countries to cut their production rates as well. As a result of these actions, Chávez became known as a "price hawk" in his dealings with the oil industry and OPEC. Chávez also attempted a comprehensive renegotiation of 60-year-old royalty payment agreements with oil giants Philips Petroleum and ExxonMobil. These agreements had allowed the corporations to pay in taxes as little as 1% of the tens of billions of dollars in revenues they were earning from the Venezuelan oil they were extracting. Afterwards, Chávez stated his intention to complete the nationalization of Venezuela's oil resources. Although unsuccessful in his attempts to renegotiate with the oil corporations, Chávez focused on his stated goal of improving both the fairness and efficiency of Venezuela's formerly lax tax collection and auditing system, especially for major corporations and landholders.
Nevertheless, by mid-1999, Chávez was incensed by his administration's setbacks in enacting his much-promised anti-poverty initiatives. The National Assembly's opposition members impeded the legislation of his political allies. Chávez moved to bypass such opposition by approving the scheduling of two fresh national elections for July 1999—just months after Chávez's presidential election. The first was a nationwide referendum to determine whether a national constitutional assembly should be created. The assembly was tasked with framing a new Venezuelan constitution that hewed more closely to Chávez's own political ideology. A second election was held that elected delegates to this constitutional assembly. The constitutional referendum passed with a CNE-audited 72% "yes" vote; in the second election, members of Chávez's MVR and select allied parties formed the Polo Patriotico ("Patriotic Pole"). Chávez's Polo Patriotico went on to win 95% (120 out of the total 131) of the seats in the voter-approved Venezuelan Constitutional Assembly.
However, in August 1999, the Constitutional Assembly established a special "judicial emergency committee" with the power to remove judges without consulting with other branches of government—over 190 judges were eventually suspended on charges of corruption. In the same month, the Constitutional Assembly declared a "legislative emergency," resulting in a seven-member committee that was tasked with conducting the legislative functions ordinarily carried out by the National Assembly. Legislative opposition to Chávez's policies was immediately disabled. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Assembly prohibited the National Assembly from holding meetings of any sort.
The Constitutional Assembly itself drafted the new 1999 Venezuelan Constitution. With 350 articles, the document was, as drafted, one of the world's lengthiest constitutions. It first changed the country's official name from "Republic of Venezuela" to "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela." It also increased the presidential term of office from five to six years, allowed for two consecutive presidential terms rather than one, introduced a presidential two-term limit, and introduced provisions for national presidential recall referendums—that is, Venezuelan voters gained the right to remove the president from office before the expiration of his presidential term. Such referendums can only be activated by a petition to do so with the required number of signatures. The presidency was also dramatically strengthened, with the power to dissolve the National Assembly upon decree. The new constitution converted the formerly bicameral National Assembly into a unicameral legislature, and stripped it of many of its former powers. Provisions were also made for a new position, the Public Defender, an office with the authority to check the activities of the presidency, the National Assembly, and the constitution. Chávez characterized the Public Defender as the guardian of the "moral branch" of the new Venezuelan government, tasked with defending public and moral interests. Lastly, the Venezuelan judiciary was reformed. Judges, under the new constitution, were now to be installed after passing public examinations and were not, as in the old manner, to be appointed by the National Assembly.
This new constitution was presented to the national electorate in December 1999 and approved. Over a span of a mere 60 days, the Constitutional Assembly thus framed a document that enshrined as constitutional law most of the structural changes Chávez desired. Chávez stated that such changes were necessary in order to successfully and comprehensively enact his planned social justice programs. He planned to enact sweeping changes in Venezuelan governmental and political structure, and, based on his 1998 campaign pledges, to dramatically open up Venezuelan political discourse to independent and third parties. In the process, Chávez sought to fatally paralyze his AD (Acción Democrática) and COPEI opposition. All of Chávez's aims were, in one move, dramatically furthered.
On December 15 1999, after weeks of heavy rain, statewide mudslides claimed the lives of an estimated 30,000 people. Critics claim Chávez was distracted by the referendum and that the government ignored a civil defense report, calling for emergency measures, issued the day the floods struck. The government rejected these claims. Chávez personally led the relief effort afterwards. Subsequent mudslides in 2000 left 3 dead.
Elections for the new unicameral National Assembly were held on July 30, 2000. During this same election, Chávez himself stood for reelection. Chávez's coalition garnered a commanding two-thirds majority of seats in the National Assembly while Chávez was reelected with 60% of the votes. The Carter Center monitored the 2000 presidential election; their report on that election stated that, due to lack of transparency, CNE partiality, and political pressure from the Chávez government that resulted in early elections, it was unable to validate the official CNE results. However, they concluded that the presidential election legitimately expressed the will of the people.
Later, on December 3, 2000, local elections and a referendum were held. The referendum, backed by Chávez, proposed a law that would force Venezuela's labor unions to hold state-monitored elections. The referendum was widely condemned by international labor organisations—including the International Labour Organization—as undue government interference in internal union matters; these organisations threatened to apply sanctions on Venezuela.
After the May and July 2000 elections, Chávez backed the passage of the "Enabling Act" by the National Assembly. This act allowed Chávez to rule by decree for one year. In November 2001, shortly before the Enabling Act was set to expire, Chávez enacted a set of 49 decrees. These included the Hydrocarbons Law and the Land Law. Fedecámaras, a national business federation, and the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela, a federation of labor unions, opposed the approval of the new laws and called for a general business strike on December 10, 2001 in the hope that the President would reconsider his legislative action and, instead, open a debate about those laws. The strike failed to significantly impact Chávez's decision or policies.
By the end of the first three years of his presidency, Chávez had successfully initiated a land transfer program and had introduced several reforms aimed at improving the social welfare of the population. These reforms entailed the lowering of infant mortality rates; the implementation of a free, government-funded healthcare system; and free education up to the university level. By December 2001, inflation fell to 12.3% the lowest since 1986, while economic growth was steady at four percent.Chávez's administration also reported an increase in primary school enrollment by one million students.
On April 9, 2002, CTV leader Carlos Ortega called for a two-day general strike. Approximately 500,000 people took to the streets on April 11, 2002 and marched towards the headquarters of Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), in defense of its recently-fired management. The organizers decided to redirect the march to Miraflores, the presidential palace, where a pro-Chávez demonstration was taking place. Chávez took over the Venezuelan airwaves several times in the early afternoon in what is termed a cadena, or a commandeering of the media airwaves to broadcast public announcements, asking protesters to return to their homes, playing lengthy pre-recorded discourses, and attempting to block coverage of the ensuing violence. Gunfire and violence erupted between two groups of demonstrators, Caracas's Metropolitan Police (under the control of the oppositionist mayor), and the Venezuelan national guard (under Chávez's command), and snipers were reported from the areas where both opposition and Chávez supporters were concentrated.
Then, unexpectedly, Lucas Rincón Romero, commander-in-chief of the Venezuelan armed forces, announced in a broadcast to a nationwide audience that Chávez had tendered his resignation from the presidency. While Chávez was brought to a military base and held there, military leaders appointed the president of the Fedecámaras, Pedro Carmona, as Venezuela's interim president. Carmona's first decree reversed the major social and economic policies that comprised Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution," including loosening Chávez's credit controls and ending his oil price quotas by raising production back to pre-Chávez levels. Carmona also dissolved both the National Assembly and the Venezuelan judiciary, while reverting the nation's name back to República de Venezuela.
Carmona's decrees were followed by pro-Chávez uprisings and looting across Caracas. Responding to these disturbances, Venezuelan soldiers loyal to Chávez called for massive popular support for a counter-coup. These soldiers later stormed and retook the presidential palace, and retrieved Chávez from captivity. The shortest-lived government in Venezuelan history was thus toppled, and Chávez resumed his presidency on the night of Saturday, April 13, 2002. Following this episode, Rincón was reappointed by Chávez as Commander of the Army, and later as Interior Minister in 2003. The opposition would later argue that, since Lucas Rincón remained close to the President, there was no coup but a power vacuum once Chávez resigned, despite the succession order being broken.
After Chávez resumed his presidency in April 2002, he ordered several investigations to be carried out, and their official results supported Chávez's assertions that the 2002 coup was sponsored by the United States. On April 16, 2002, Chávez claimed that a plane with U.S. registration numbers had visited and been berthed at Venezuela's Orchila Island airbase, where Chávez had been held captive. On May 14, 2002, Chávez alleged that he had definitive proof of U.S. military involvement in April's coup. He claimed that during the coup Venezuelan radar images had indicated the presence of U.S. military naval vessels and aircraft in Venezuelan waters and airspace. The Guardian published a claim by Wayne Madsen – a writer (at the time) for left-wing publications and a former Navy analyst and critic of the George W. Bush administration – alleging U.S. Navy involvement. U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd, D-CT, requested an investigation of concerns that Washington appeared to condone the removal of Mr Chavez, which subsequently found that "U.S. officials acted appropriately and did nothing to encourage an April coup against Venezuela's president", nor did they provide any naval logistical support.
Chávez also claimed, during the coup's immediate aftermath, that the U.S. was still seeking his overthrow. On October 6, 2002, he stated that he had foiled a new coup plot, and on October 20, 2002, he stated that he had barely escaped an assassination attempt while returning from a trip to Europe. During that period, the US Ambassador to Venezuela warned the Chávez administration of two potential assassination plots.
Following his return to office, Chávez quickly took steps to secure support for his government. First, Chávez fired sixty generals and completely replaced the upper echelons of Venezuela's armed forces, substituting them with more complacent pro-Chávez personnel. Chávez also sought to strengthen support among rank and file soldiers. He boosted support programs, employment, and benefits for veterans, while promulgating new civilian-military development initiatives.
However, only a few months would pass after the April 2002 coup before the Chávez presidency would enter another crisis. Chávez, outraged by the coup and seeking more funds for his social programs, moved in late 2002 to implement total control over the PDVSA and its revenues. As a result, for two months following December 2, 2002, Chávez faced a strike from resistant PDVSA workers that sought to force Chávez out of office by completely removing his access to the all-important government oil revenue. The strike, led by a coalition of labor unions, industrial magnates, and oil workers, sought to halt the activities of the PDVSA. As a result, Venezuela ceased exporting its former daily average of 2,800,000 barrels (450,000 m³) of oil and oil derivatives. Hydrocarbon shortages soon erupted throughout Venezuela, with long lines forming at petrol-filling stations. Gasoline imports were soon required. Alarmed, Chávez responded by firing PDVSA's anti-Chávez upper-echelon management and dismissing 18,000 skilled PDVSA employees. Chávez justified this by alleging their complicity in gross mismanagement and corruption in their handling of oil revenues, while opposition supporters of the fired workers stated that his actions were politically motivated.
In 2003 and 2004 Chávez launched a number of social and economic campaigns as he struggled to maintain popular support. In July 2003 he launched "Mission Robinson," billed as a campaign aimed at providing free reading, writing and arithmetic lessons to the more than 1.5 million Venezuelan adults who were illiterate prior to his 1999 election. On October 12, 2003, Chávez initiated "Mission Guaicaipuro," a program billed as protecting the livelihood, religion, land, culture, and rights of Venezuela's indigenous peoples. In late 2003, the Venezuelan president launched "Mission Sucre," with the stated intent of providing free higher education to the two million adult Venezuelans who had not completed their elementary-level education. In November 2003, Chávez announced "Mission Ribas," with the promise of providing remedial education and diplomas for Venezuela's five million high school dropouts. On the first anniversary of Mission Robinson's establishment, Chávez stated in Caracas's Teresa Carreño theater to an audience of 50,000 formerly illiterate Venezuelans, "in a year, we have graduated 1,250,000 Venezuelans." Nevertheless, there were also significant setbacks. Notably, the inflation rate rocketed to 31% in 2002 and remained at the high level of 27% in 2003, causing a great deal of hardship for the poor.
In May 9, 2004, a group of 126 Colombians were captured during a raid of a farm near Caracas. Chávez soon accused them of being a foreign-funded paramilitary force who intended to violently overthrow his rule. These events merely served to further the extreme and violent polarization of Venezuelan society between pro- and anti-Chávez camps. Chávez's allegations of a putative 2004 coup attempt continue to stir controversy and doubts to this day. In October 2005, 27 of the accused Colombians were found guilty, while the rest were released and deported.
In early and mid-2003, Súmate, a grassroots volunteer civilian voter rights organization, began the process of collecting the millions of signatures needed to activate the presidential recall provision provided for in Chávez's 1999 Constitution. In August 2003, around 3.2 million signatures were presented, but these were rejected by the pro-Chávez majority in the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE; "National Electoral Council") on the grounds that many had been collected before the mid-point of Chávez's presidential term. Reports then began to emerge among opposition and international news outlets that Chávez had begun to act punitively against those who had signed the petition, while pro-Chávez individuals stated that they had been coerced by employers into offering their signatures at their workplaces. In November 2003, the opposition collected an entirely new set of signatures, with 3.6 million names produced over a span of four days. Riots erupted nationwide as allegations of fraud were made by Chávez against the signature collectors.
The provision in the Constitution allowing for a presidential recall requires the signatures of 20% of the electorate in order to effect a recall. Further, the cedulas (national identity card numbers) and identities of petition signers are not secret, and in fact were made public by Luis Tascón, a member of the Venezuelan National Assembly representing Chávez' party (Fifth Republic Movement - MVR) and the Communist Party of Venezuela of Táchira state. The government was accused of increasing the voter rolls by giving citizenship to illegal immigrants and refugees; and the opposition claimed that it was a citizenship for votes program. Voter registration increased by about 2 million people ahead of the referendum, which in effect raised the threshold of the 20% of the electorate needed to effect a recall.
Reports again emerged that Chávez and his allies were penalizing signers of the publicly posted petition. Charges were made of summary dismissals from government ministries, PDVSA, the state-owned water corporation, the Caracas Metro, and public hospitals controlled by Chávez's political allies. Finally, after opposition leaders submitted to the CNE a valid petition with 2,436,830 signatures that requested a presidential recall referendum, a recall referendum was announced on June 8, 2004 by the CNE. Chávez and his political allies responded to this by mobilizing supporters to encourage rejection of the recall with a "no" vote.
The recall vote itself was held on August 15, 2004. A record number of voters turned out to defeat the recall attempt with a 59% "no" vote.The election was overseen by the Carter Center and certified by them as fair and open. Critics called the results fraudulent, citing documents which indicated that the true results were the complete opposite of the reported ones, and raising questions about the government ownership of voting machines. "Massive fraud" was alleged and Carter's conclusions were questioned, although five other opposition polls showed a Chávez victory.
A jubilant Chávez pledged to redouble his efforts against both poverty and "imperialism," while promising to foster dialogue with his opponents. Chávez's government subsequently charged the founders of Súmate with treason and conspiracy for receiving foreign funds, earmarked for voter education, from the United States Department of State through the National Endowment for Democracy, triggering commentary from human rights organizations and the U.S. government. The trial has been postponed several times. A program called "Mission Identity", to fast track voter registration of immigrants to Venezuela — including Chávez supporters benefiting from his subsidies — has been put in place prior to the upcoming 2006 presidential elections.
In the aftermath of his referendum victory, Chávez's primary objectives of fundamental social and economic transformation and redistribution accelerated dramatically. Chávez himself placed the development and implementation of the "Bolivarian Missions" once again at the forefront of his political agenda. Sharp increases in global oil prices gave Chávez access to billions of dollars in extra foreign exchange reserves. Economic growth picked up markedly, reaching double-digit growth in 2004 and a 9.3% growth rate for 2005.
Many new policy initiatives were advanced by Chávez after 2004. In late March 2005, the Chávez government passed a series of media regulations that criminalised broadcasted libel and slander directed against public officials; prison sentences of up to 40 months for serious instances of character defamation launched against Chávez and other officials were enacted. When asked if he would ever actually move to use the 40-month sentence if a media figure insulted him, Chávez remarked that "I don't care if they [the private media] call me names.... As Don Quixote said, 'If the dogs are barking, it is because we are working.' Chávez also worked to expand his land redistribution and social welfare programs by authorizing and funding a multitude of new "Bolivarian Missions," including "Mission Vuelta al Campo"; the second and third phases of "Mission Barrio Adentro," both first initiated in June 2005 with the stated aim of constructing, funding, and refurbishing secondary (integrated diagnostic center) and tertiary (hospital) public health care facilities nationwide; and "Mission Miranda, which established a national citizen's militia. Meanwhile, Venezuela's doctors went on strike, protesting the siphoning of public funds from their existing institutions to these new Bolivarian ones, run by Cuban doctors.
Chávez focused considerably on Venezuela's foreign relations in 2004 and 2005 via new bilateral and multilateral agreements, including humanitarian aid and construction projects. Chávez has engaged, with varying degrees of success, numerous other foreign leaders, including Argentina's Néstor Kirchner, China's Hu Jintao, Cuba's Fidel Castro, Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Russia's Vladimir Putin. On March 4, 2005, Chávez publicly declared that the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was "dead." Chávez stated that the neoliberal model of development had utterly failed in improving the lives of Latin Americans, and that an alternative, anti-capitalist model would be conceived in order to increase trade and relations between Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. Chávez also stated his desire that a leftist, Latin American analogue of NATO be established.
Over the course of 2004 and 2005, the Venezuelan military under Chávez also began in earnest to reduce weaponry sourcing and military ties with the United States. Chávez's Venezuela is thus increasingly purchasing arms from alternative sources, such as Brazil, Russia, China and Spain. Friction over these sales escalated, and in response Chávez ended cooperation between the militaries of the two countries. He also asked all active-duty U.S. soldiers to leave Venezuela. Additionally, in 2005 Chávez announced the creation of a large "military reserve"—the Mission Miranda program, which encompasses a militia of 1.5 million citizens—as a defensive measure against foreign intervention or outright invasion. Additionally, in October 2005, Chávez banished the Christian missionary organization "New Tribes Mission" from the country, accusing it of "imperialist infiltration" and harboring connections with the CIA. At the same time, he granted inalienable titles to over 6,800 square kilometers of land traditionally inhabited by Amazonian indigenous peoples to their respective resident natives, though this land could not be bought or sold as Western-style title deeds can. Chávez cited these changes as evidence that his revolution was also a revolution for the defense of indigenous rights, such as those promoted by Chávez's Mission Guaicaipuro.
During this period, Chávez placed much greater emphasis on alternative economic development and international trade models, much of it in the form of extremely ambitious hemisphere-wide international aid agreements. For example, on August 20, 2005, during the first graduation of international scholarship students from Cuba's Latin American School of Medicine, Chávez announced that he would jointly establish with Cuba a second such medical school that would provide tuition-free medical training—an ex gratia project valued at between $20 and 30 billion—to more than 100,000 physicians who would pledge to work in the poorest communities of the Global South. He announced that the project would run for the next decade, and that the new school would include at least 30,000 new places for poor students from both Latin America and the Caribbean.
Chávez has also taken ample opportunity on the international stage to juxtapose such projects with the manifest results and workings of neoliberal globalization. Most notably, during his speech at the 2005 UN World Summit, he denounced development models that are organised around neoliberal guidelines such as liberalisation of capital flows, removal of trade barriers, and privatisation as the reason for the developing world's impoverishment. Chávez also went on to warn of an imminent global energy famine brought about by hydrocarbon depletion (based on Hubbert peak theory), stating that "we are facing an unprecedented energy crisis.... Oil is starting to become exhausted. Additionally, on November 7, 2005, Chávez referenced the stalling of the FTAA, stating at the Fourth Summit of the Americas, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, that "the great loser today was George W. Bush. The man went away wounded. You could see defeat on his face." Chávez took the same opportunity to state that "the taste of victory" was apparent with regards to the promotion of his own trade alternative, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA—Alternativa Bolivariana para América), which Venezuela and Cuba inaugurated on December 14, 2004.
In 2005, Chávez demanded the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles, accused of conspiring to bomb Cubana Flight 455. A Texas judge blocked the extradition on the grounds that he could be tortured in Venezuela; the Venezuelan embassy blamed the Department of Homeland Security for refusing to contest such accusations during the trial. Chávez also requested the extradition of former Venezuelan officers and members of Militares democraticos, Lt. German Rodolfo Varela and Lt. Jose Antonio Colina, who are wanted for bombing the Spanish and Colombian embassies after Chávez made a speech criticizing both governments.
In 2006 Chávez announced Venezuela's bid to win a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council; Washington officials encouraged Latin American and Caribbean nations to vote instead for Guatemala. Analysts quoted by Forbes Magazine said that Chávez would offer to supply 20% of China's crude oil needs if Beijing backed Venezuela's bid to join the UN Security Council. In Chile, the press was concerned that Venezuelan grants for flood aid might affect the government's decision about which country to support for admission to the UN Security Council. However, Venezuela was never able to obtain more votes than Guatemala in the forty-one separate UN votes in October 2006 . Because of this deadlock in voting, Panama was selected as a consensus candidate and subsequently won the election for Latin America's seat on the Security Council.
In accordance with his foreign policy trends, Chávez has visited several countries in Latin America, as well as Portugal, Belarus, Russia, Qatar, Syria, Iran, Vietnam, Mali and Benin. At the request of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, Chávez also attended the 2006 summit of the African Union in Banjul. He also visited the People's Republic of China and Malaysia.
In 2006 Chavez accused the United States government of attempting to turn Colombia into Venezuela's adversary over the recent arms dispute. “The U.S. empire doesn't lose a chance to attack us and try to create discord between us. That's one of the empire's strategies: Try to keep us divided.” Chavez said in response to the United States government.
In a list compiled by the magazine New Statesman in 2006, he was voted eleventh in the list of "Heroes of our time".