CARACAS -- Wearing a blue windbreaker and dripping sweat Friday night, President Hugo Chávez sang to a massive throng of supporters in the northern city of Maturín, and then dusted off one of his favorite lines: “We’re going to knock out the bourgeoisie!”
During his almost 14-years in office, Chávez has earned the right to swagger. He has survived three elections, one coup and one recall attempt. Along the way, the nation rewarded him with the right to run for office indefinitely.
But with a week to go before the nation’s crucial Oct. 7 vote, polls suggest that his rival, former Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, may not fall so easily. While Chávez is leading most surveys, others show him in a dead heat against his 40-year-old rival.
But El Comandante has never been one to shy from a fight.
Born in the agricultural heartland of Barinas state, Chávez was a star pupil in the military academy. He rose through the ranks of the army to make commander by 1991. All the while, he was forming a secret society with like-minded cadets called the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement. Founded in the wake of the 1989 Caracazo riots, which left hundreds dead, the movement was bent on overhauling Venezuelan society.
The organization burst onto the national stage in 1992, when Chávez and other mid-ranking officials tried to oust President Carlos Andrés Pérez. The coup attempt failed and Chávez agreed to surrender as long as he could do it on national television.
In one of the briefest and most important speeches of his career, Chávez introduced himself to Venezuela, asked his co-conspirators to stand down and took responsibility for the uprising.
“Unfortunately, we did not meet the objectives we set for ourselves — for now,” he said.
The image of the idealistic officer in his red beret — a cap that would become his trademark — turned him into a national phenomenon.
A NEW PARTY
After spending two years in jail and eventually winning a pardon, Chávez founded a new political party, The Fifth Republic Movement, and launched his presidential bid based on overhauling the 1961 constitution.
His folksy charm and anti-establishment rhetoric struck a chord in a country that had grown weary under the ruling elite. He won the race with 62 percent of the vote, and immediately began reshaping the nation: rewriting the constitution, changing the country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and rolling out reforms. The new constitution called for new elections and he won 60 percent of the vote in 2000.
But by 2002, the country was beginning to bristle under his socialist policies. The tensions came to a head on April 11, 2002, when he was forced out of office in a short-lived and confusing coup. He was eventually swept back into power by his supporters and a commando unit, but his foes were emboldened.
In 2004, the opposition gathered more than two million signatures needed to trigger a recall referendum. Chávez crushed the effort with 59 percent of the vote — but this time the election was questioned by the opposition and outside observers.
The following year, Chávez embarked on one of the most controversial aspects of his administration: expropriating land in the name of food security and wealth redistribution. While those moves terrified international investors, they were largely praised by Venezuela’s poorest, who see a champion in their leader.
Even as the country has been slammed with record-high inflation and one of the worst crime rates in the world, Chávez has maintained approval ratings in excess of 50 percent, said Oscar Schemel, with the Hinterlaces polling firm, which predicts the president will win by at least a 10-point margin.
“Chávez isn’t so much a president as a religious leader,” he said. “He has deep emotional ties with the working class. … He’s a preacher and a redeemer and that’s why people always forgive him.”
In 2006, Chávez was up for reelection and beat Zulia Gov. Manuel Rosales with 63 percent of the vote. When he began his new term, he vowed to accelerate his “21st Century Socialism” and began a program of nationalizing key industries, including Venezuela’s telephone company and power generators.
But the Chávez steamroller hit a bump in June, 2011, when he announced that he had cancer. While he has never confirmed what type of cancer he’s battling, he claims to be completely cured despite a relapse in February.
Just a few years ago, after winning a referendum that eliminated term limits, Chávez taunted the opposition by saying he would stay in power until 2031.
He doesn’t make those claims anymore. On Friday, he asked the nation to give him another presidential term — one that would take him to 2019.
“Whatever life I have left to live,” he told the crowd. “I will give it all to the youth, and girls and boys of Venezuela.”