As pro-Chávez sympathizers took to the streets demanding their leader’s return, many privately owned television stations boycotted the news by running cartoons and movies. As support for the Carmona regime crumbled, commandos freed Chávez from Orchila Island and whisked him back to Caracas to assume the presidency.
But the opposition remained a threat.
By December, a broad coalition had organized another strike against Chávez. This time, it lasted more than two months and workers from the state-run oil company, PDVSA, joined in, paralyzing the country’s main source of income and leading to national fuel shortages. By January, the government had regained control of PDVSA and fired more than 17,000 of its employees.
In 2004, the opposition struck again, gathering enough signatures to call an impeachment referendum. Chávez won the vote with 59 percent. Once again, the opposition said the election had been rigged.
In 2005, Chávez embarked on one of the most controversial aspects of his administration: expropriating land in the name of food security and wealth redistribution. While Chávez said the policy helped expand the nation’s arable land and boosted output, imports of basic food items also skyrocketed and shortages and rationing were commonplace.
“During Chávez’s reign, Venezuelans saw a marked decrease in their liberties in all categories,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, the former chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, told The Miami Herald. “There was less freedom of expression, more press censorship, less separation of powers, more violations of human rights, more expropriation of properties and more collaboration with tyrannies such as with Cuba, Iran and Syria. By every indicator of freedom, there was less of it under Chavez’s autocratic thumb.”
SWEPT VOTE IN 2005
But Venezuela’s opposition also played into his hands. During congressional elections in 2005, the opposition called for a boycott. Chávez’s sympathizers swept the vote, giving him a rubber-stamp congress that allowed him to push for deeper reforms.
During the presidential election in 2006, Chávez beat Manuel Rosales, the governor of Zulia State, with 63 percent of the vote.
When he began his six-year term in 2007, he vowed to accelerate his “21st Century Socialism” and began a program of nationalizing key industries, including Venezuela’s telephone company and power generators. While those moves terrified international investors, they were largely praised by some, who saw a champion in their leader.
“If one was to challenge the fates and guess how he might be ultimately judged, the doughy Venezuelan leader is likely to be seen as a man whose shortcomings were more a matter of style than substance, and who bore a genuine vision at a relatively high level of commitment to the nation’s poor,” said Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “It could be argued that his grand design for the hemisphere far surpassed any number of contending philosophies at play at the time.”
Also in 2007, the country was hit with a fresh wave of protests that were sparked after the government failed to renew the broadcast license for RCTV, one of the largest independent television stations.