The organization burst onto the national stage in 1992 when Chávez and other mid-ranking officials tried to oust President Carlos Andrés Pérez — an unpopular leader who was hounded by corruption charges and was impeached in 1993. 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 — which would become his trademark — turned him into a national phenomenon.
Chávez spent the next two years in jail, building political support and co-authoring a manifesto called How to get out of the Labyrinth. In 1994, he and his colleagues were pardoned by President Rafael Caldera.
Links with Castro
One of his first stops after emerging from jail was Cuba, where he met leader Fidel Castro. The aging communist would become a mentor and close personal friend to Chávez, who referred to him as a father figure and a model for Latin America. Years later, it would be Castro who would inform Chávez that Cuban doctors had discovered his cancer.
Sensing that Venezuelans had tired of traditional political parties, Chávez founded The Fifth Republic Movement and began a national tour where he talked about the need to rewrite the 1961 Constitution.
His folksy charm and anti-establishment rhetoric struck a chord. Despite facing a unified opposition in the 1998 presidential race, he won 62 percent of the vote, according to the National Electoral Council. When he took office in February of 1999 he immediately began reshaping the country.
In April, he won a referendum to rewrite the constitution. In December, the new Magna Carta — that also changed the country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela — was ratified with 72 percent of the vote.
The new constitution required new elections, and in 2000, Chávez won a six-year term with 60 percent of the vote in a process that was questioned by international observers.
By 2002, the country was beginning to bristle under his policies and his socialist reforms. Members of his inner circle resigned and demanded that he step down. The Catholic Church and the powerful Federation of Chambers of Commerce, or Fedecámaras, also turned on him. In February, Chávez fired the upper management of the state-run PDVSA oil company, which helped galvanize the opposition.
On April 11, 2002, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets and clashed with Chávez sympathizers in front of the Miraflores presidential palace. As the body count rose, a group of military officers gave Chávez an ultimatum: Step down or they would attack the presidential palace, even though it was surrounded by civilians. In a confusing series of events, the nation’s minister of defense announced that Chávez had agreed to resign. Chávez later denied he had ever stepped down.
The next afternoon, Fedecámaras President Pedro Carmona was sworn in as a caretaker president until elections could be held. He also usurped the constitution by dissolving congress, the Supreme Court and the attorney general’s office, among others.