Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías
- Born July 28, 1954 in Sabaneta, Barinas Venezuela
- Died March 5, 2013 in Caracas, Distrito Capital Venezuela
Hugo Chávez was the President of Venezuela from 1999 until his death from cancer in 2013. A highly controversial figure, his presidency had a significant influence on the development of baseball in his country.
Born in a working class family in a back-country district of Venezuela, Chávez was a career military officer who became dissatisfied with the Venezuelan political system and worked to overthrow it by revolutionary means in the 1980s and early 1990s, leading an unsuccessful coup d'état attempt in 1992 that resulted in his being imprisoned. After his release, he decided to work on taking power through the ballot box, devising a socialist-inspired ideology of "Bolivarism" and campaigning against imperialism and the influence of the United States.
He was elected president in 1998 and took office a few months later, using his position to modify the constitution in order to increase the powers of the presidency and turn it into a quasi-dictatorship. His anti-American rhetoric and his courting of Fidel Castro's communist regime in Cuba soon made him an enemy of the United States, which tried to unseat him by backing a coup attempt against him in 2002, after massive protests against Chávez's political and economic reforms. The plotters came close to succeeding, taking power for a few days and even being recognized by the U.S., but a counter-movement by forces loyal to Chávez drove them out of power and led to his restoration within a week. The already tense social situation became explosive at that point, leading to massive country-wide strikes in late 2002 and 2003 which led to the cancellation of the 2002-03 Venezuelan League season and to the absence of a Venezuelan representative at the 2003 Caribbean Series.
The strikes did not succeed in forcing Chávez to give up power, and neither did an attempt in 2004 to recall him through a referendum. By then, Chávez had managed to find more international allies, such as the newly-elected Presidents of Ecuador and Bolivia, who had run on populist platforms inspired by Chávez, creating a "Latin-American resistance front" against U.S. policies on the continent. Chávez's international influence was helped by the steady rise in oil prices, as oil exports represent a huge chunk of Venezuela's economy. He was thus in a position to buy support both internally and internationally, consolidating his once tenuous hold on power. He was reelected a number of times, and the flow of money also helped the local baseball scene, as the number of ballplayers from Venezuela in the major and minor leagues exploded, to the point that by the early 2010s, Venezuela, long a relatively marginal player, was challenging the Dominican Republic and Cuba for Latin American baseball supremacy. Chávez was quite a baseball fan, and made sure that there was a lot of money available for the sport once his hold on the country was completely secure. He was also not averse to micro-managing on the diamond, as Venezuelan national team manager Luis Sojo said that he used to receive early-morning telephone calls from the President to see how things were going, but also to argue over strategy. Sojo cited a particular game where the Venezuelans lost an early lead in the 4th inning: "He said, 'how come you didn't bring Francisco Rodriguez in?' I said, 'he's the closer! I can't pitch him in the fourth.'"
A typical populist, Chavez built his political base by appealing to the "little man" against the holders of economic power. He used inflammatory rhetoric and had the habit of hosting his own talk show, ranting for hours on end on various topics. While his policies led to a virtual shut-down of the country's economy around 2003, the later windfall from high oil prices made some of his redistributive policies affordable. However, Chávez's highly divisionary style created a chasm within the country, and while he was continually reelected as President, even when running from his deathbed in late 2012, he left a country that was extremely divided, even after his policies closed some of the massive income gap between rich and poor that had existed before he took office.