From baseball dreams to bloody coups: The dramatic life of Hugo Chávez

Hugo Chávez, king of the one-man show.
Hugo Chávez, king of the one-man show.
Image: AP Photo/Gregorio Marrero
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Hugo Chávez’s life—and now his death—was a story straight out of Hollywood.

Chávez could not depart quietly from the presidency of Venezuela and slip into an easy retirement like most leaders. That would have been too mundane.

No, he had to have a dramatic exit, battling cancer for nearly two years, shuttling from Caracas to Havana for treatment, virtually disappearing from public view in the last weeks of his life.

It was the final chapter of what even his enemies must admit was an extraordinary life, from organizing a clandestine cell in the military for a decade to running for president against a former Miss Universe to calling George W. Bush “the devil” at the United Nations.

Chávez was literally born in a mud hut in the Great Plains of Venezuela. He was so poor as a child that the grandmother who raised him made him sell sweets at school.

As a boy, he dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player in the United States. He gained entrance to a prestigious military academy—mainly because he thought he’d have a better chance of getting discovered by scouts in Caracas than in rural Venezuela.

But at the academy he discovered Simon Bolivar, the “Liberator” and Venezuelan native son who freed six South American countries from Spanish rule and became Chávez’s inspiration for creating a more just Venezuela and Latin America.

Venezuela sat atop some of the world’s largest oil reserves, yet most of the population was mired in poverty. A tiny elite monopolized the oil money.

Incensed, Chávez formed a secret organization inside the military of like-minded soldiers. By day he was a soldier, by night he was a conspirator.

The turning point came in 1989 when the government massacred hundreds if not several thousand people after riots broke out over an International Monetary Fund, neo-liberal “shock package.” Chávez and his cohorts decided to strike back.

On Feb. 4, 1992, they launched a coup against the government of Carlos Andres Perez. The putsch failed, but Chávez became an instant hero to millions of poor people.

He went to jail for two years, got pardoned and spent a couple of years criss-crossing the country. By 1997, he was running for president. His main opponent at first was former Miss Universe Irene Saez. The campaign was dubbed “the beauty and the beast.”

In December 1998, Chávez easily won the presidency.

His presidency was equally dramatic, a series of life-and-death roller coaster rides. In April 2002, he was the object of a coup attempt himself. After bloody street confrontations by clashing demonstrations, he was essentially kidnapped by military coup leaders and disappeared from public view for two days. The president was missing—his countrymen did not know where he was.

But loyalists launched a counter-coup, snatched Chávez from a Caribbean island where he was being held, and flew him back to Caracas on a helicopter in the middle of the night.

As the chopper’s lights broke through the mist in the sky at close to 3 am, thousands of his supporters who had surrounded the presidential palace for two days waiting and hoping for his return broke into cheers and then became delirious.

They had feared Chávez was going to be executed during the coup, and by his account he nearly was. Now, on the third day, it was as if he had risen from the dead.

To his supporters, it was like a miracle. This time around, in his battle against cancer, Chávez could not produce another one.