CARACAS, Venezuela — Hugo Chávez, who died on Tuesday at 58, rose from poverty in a dirt-floor adobe house to unrivaled influence in Venezuela as its president, consolidating power and wielding the country’s oil reserves as a tool for his Socialist-inspired change.
With a televangelist’s gift for oratory, Mr. Chávez led a nationalist movement that lashed out at the United States government, moneyed Venezuelans and his own disaffected followers, whom he often branded as traitors. He was a dreamer with a common touch and enormous ambition. He maintained an almost visceral connection with the poor, tapping into their resentments, while strutting like the strongman in a caudillo novel. His followers called him Comandante.
In office, he upended the political order at home and used oil revenues to finance client states in Latin America, notably Bolivia and Nicaragua. Inspired by Simón Bolívar, the mercurial Venezuelan aristocrat who led South America’s 19th-century wars of independence, Mr. Chávez sought to unite the region and erode Washington’s influence.
“The hegemonic pretensions of the American empire are placing at risk the very survival of the human species,” he said in a 2006 speech at the United Nations. In the same speech he called President George W. Bush “the devil.”
For years, he succeeded in curbing American influence. He breathed life into Cuba, the hemisphere’s only Communist nation, with economic assistance; its revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, was not only an ally but also an inspiration. He forged a Bolivarian alliance with some of Latin America’s energy-exporting nations, like Ecuador and Bolivia, and applauded when they expelled American ambassadors, as he had done. He asserted greater state control over Venezuela’s economy by nationalizing dozens of foreign-owned assets, including oil projects controlled by Exxon Mobil and other large American corporations.
Though he met opposition at home, he enjoyed broad support, in part by going into the slums to establish health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors and state-run stores selling subsidized food. These and other social welfare programs could be corrupt and inefficient, but they made the poor feel included in a society that had long ignored them.
At the same time, he was determined to hold onto and enhance his power. He grew obsessed with changing Venezuela’s laws and regulations to ensure that he could be re-elected indefinitely and become, indeed, a caudillo, able to rule by decree at times. He stacked his government with generals, colonels and majors, drawing inspiration from the leftist military officers who ruled Peru and Panama in the 1970s.
A bizarre governing apparatus subject to his whims coalesced around him. State television cameras recorded nearly every public appearance, many of them to make surprise, unscripted announcements, often in his military uniform and paratrooper’s red beret. He might rail against Venezuela’s high consumption of Scotch whisky — he did not drink alcohol, his aides said — or its high demand for breast augmentation surgery. He once stunned citizens by decreeing a new time zone for the nation, a half-hour behind its previous one.
‘Astute and Manipulative’
Dr. Edmundo Chirinos, a psychiatrist who got to know Mr. Chávez as a patient, described him in a profile in The New Yorker in 2001 as “a hyperkinetic and imprudent man, unpunctual, someone who overreacts to criticism, harbors grudges, is politically astute and manipulative, and possesses tremendous stamina, never sleeping more than two or three hours a night.”
Mr. Chávez would delight in angering his critics in rich countries. He heaped praise, for instance, on Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, the Venezuelan terrorist better known as Carlos the Jackal, with whom he corresponded.
“I defend him,” Mr. Chávez said of his friend, who was jailed in France on charges of murdering two French police agents and a Lebanese informer in Paris in 1975. “I don’t care what they say tomorrow in Europe.”