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The man who called Bush the devil

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September 25, 2006 13:22 IST
Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, the outspoken president of oil-rich Venezuela, drew applause from the UN General Assembly last week when he took on the world's superpower and described US President George W Bush as 'the Devil.'

A day later, he told a church meeting in Harlem that 'Bush is an alcoholic, a sick man with a lot of hang-ups.'

Both outbursts may have contributed to his foreign minister Nicolas Maduro being involved in what the US state department calls an 'regrettable incident' at New York's JFK airport on Saturday.

This not the first time the leftist Latin American leader has taken on America, a country which he accuses of plotting to overthrow him.

In February 2004, after the ouster of the ouster of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Chavez described President Bush as a pendejo (a Latin American profanity which at its best means 'stupid'). He has also made personal remarks against Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, describing her as 'completely illiterate.'

Often traveling the world to build a coalition against Bush and the US, he has rarely missed an opportunity to abuse the American president and his policies. One occasion to the contrary was at last week's Non Aligned Movement summit in Havana where our colleague Syed Firdaus Ashraf reports that Chavez's speech was unusually sober. Perhaps the Venuzuelan leader did not want to embarrass his idol Fidel Castro, whose mantle he aspires to.

The second son of two schoolteachers -- Chavez was born July 28, 1954, and grew up with his paternal grandmother. After failing to get through college -- where he picked up his socialist leanings and developed a system described as 'Bolivarianism', inspired by 19th century Venezuelan revolutionary Simon Bolivar -- he entered the army. Seventeen years later, he was a lieutenant colonel known for his fiery anti-government position.

In February 1992, he launched a coup attempt against President Carlos Andrés Pérez, but surrendered when his forces failed to take the capital, Caracas. His televised appeal to his followers to follow suit brought him to the public's attention as a man who had tried to stand up to the corrupt government. Barely a year later, Perez was impeached on corruption charges.

Pardoned and freed by President Rafael Caldera in 1994, Chavez went on to forge the Movimiento Quinta República, and by 1998, he was campaigning for the presidency, which he won on February 2, 1999.

His attempts to revive the economy -- initially through a novel civilian-military programme in which the army helped build roads, houses and helped in mass vaccination programmes -- backfired when army officers were accused of corruption. Foreign oil majors developing Venezuela's huge oil reserves were also unhappy with his plan to raise taxes. He has since drafted legislation to nationalise the foreign oil companies, an example neighbouring Bolivian leader Evo Morales -- a Chavez near-clone -- has copied.

In order to check opposition to his plans, Chavez has pushed through a new Venezuelan constitution, which, among other things, changed the country's official name from 'Republic of Venezuela' to the 'Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela', increased the presidential term of office from five to six years, and allowed two consecutive presidential terms.

After a short-lived coup attempt against him in April 2002, Chavez returned to the presidency, purged his army of over 60 generals and stregthened his grip on the government. The coup attempt, he claimed, was sponsored by America. He then reneged on several arms deals with US companies, and asked all US armed personnel to leave his country.

Critics accuse Chavez of trying to muzzle the media and of harsh reprisals against his opponents.

In May, he was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people.

Image: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez holds up the Spanish-edition book Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (The American Empire Project) by author Noam Chomsky while addressing the United Nations General Assembly, September 20 at the UN in New York City.

Photograph: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images