This is the day Venezuela changed. Twenty years ago, Hugo Chávez was elected president – Miami Herald

On Dec. 6, 1998, Venezuelans elected a new president. Former coup leader Hugo Chávez won and declared “a new page in our history.” Chávez died in 2013, paving the way for current leader Nicolás Maduro.

Here is a look back at the Miami Herald story on Chávez’s election:

Dec. 6, 1998: Coup leader elected president

Former army coup leader Hugo Chavez overwhelmed opponent Henrique Salas Romer on Sunday in a presidential election triumph that revealed a seething rage in Venezuela against the political establishment.

With 78 percent of ballots counted, the National Elections Council said Chavez had tallied 56 percent of votes to 40 percent for Salas, a Yale-educated former governor who headed a “Stop Chavez” campaign. Former beauty queen Irene Saez trailed with 3 percent.

“Today, the 6th of December, we Venezuelans have written a new page in our history. The national soul has been reborn,” Chavez said. Joyful Chavez supporters set off firecrackers and cruised through Caracas streets, honking and chanting “Cha-vez! Cha-vez!”

The former army paratroop commander immediately sought to calm jittery financial markets, announcing he would not devalue the currency or establish exchange controls.

Either move would affect Florida. Venezuela is Florida’s No. 2 trading partner. Florida exported $3.3 billion to the nation last year.

Chavez seduced Venezuelans with his pledge to oust corrupt politicians, convoke an elected assembly to rewrite the constitution, and find a path between communism and capitalism for his 24 million countrymen, 78 percent of whom live in poverty.

Not widely known until he launched an unsuccessful army insurrection in 1992, the 44-year-old Chavez rode to victory on a perception that politicians have squandered this nation’s oil wealth.

A tight-lipped Salas Romer conceded defeat early in the evening.

“I not only accept the victory of my adversary but wish him luck, lots of luck, because his luck will be that of Venezuela,” Salas Romer said.

Call for cutbacks In a late night press conference, Chavez promised to slash more than half of Venezuela’s 30 state ministries, renegotiate the nation’s crushing $55 billion foreign debt, crack down on tax cheats and rein in the huge state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, which he called a “state within a state.”

Just three days ago, Chavez said, the oil company approved an $11 billion investment plan “when there’s not even $1 billion for universities or for healthcare. This can’t be. This will end. This has ended.”

Tensions accompanied the watershed vote, but elections went smoothly. “There hasn’t been a single incident in the whole country,” Information Minister Fernando Egaña said.

Last week, Chavez warned of possible fraud. But early on Sunday he said he had no complaints with the 7,000 electronic machines that tabulated votes at each precinct and sent results via modem to the National Elections Council.

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, greets supporters under a heavy rain during his closing campaign rally on Avenida Bolivar, in Caracas, four days away from the presidential elections.

Pedro Portal EL Nuevo Herald

In the morning, Chavez and his wife, Maria Isabel, waded through a crush of supporters at the Caracas school where he cast his ballot. He looked jubilant and relaxed, a broad smile creasing his face.

“I feel like the deep blue sea — a clean conscience, full of love, full of energy and fully convinced that today we are beginning to build the Venezuela of our children and the 21st Century,” he said.

Voters began lining up at precincts at 6 a.m., clamoring for a change of the nation’s leadership and voicing disgust at traditional politicians.

“We want a different kind of government, one that really helps people,” said Manuel Antonio Mayz, 53, a bill collector for a drug company.

Tumultuous past Since independence in 1821, Venezuela has known mostly turbulence and dictatorial rule. Forty years ago, democracy returned but upheaval did not end. Price hikes in 1989 led to major rioting, followed in 1992 by two military insurrections, a presidential impeachment in 1993, a devastating banking collapse in 1994-1995, and an oil price plunge this year.

Despite holding the largest proven oil reserves outside of the Middle East, Venezuela has seen its living standards plummet. Crime is rampant.

“When you walk out the door at 6 in the morning, you better say a Hail Mary,” said Elias Huice, a carpenter in the poor Mamera district.

A knot of Chavez supporters gathered, suggesting that they would embrace authoritarian rule if Chavez decides to employ it to run the nation. “I hope he’s a democratic dictator,” said Ramon Cova, 35. “I want order, peace and health care.”

In another neighborhood, San Agustin del Sur, Gerardo Diaz paused to explain why he was worried about a Chavez presidency. “His history of violence worries me. His followers worry me. His followers generally are not very educated,” Diaz said.

Regardless of whom they supported, voters expressed anger at a two-party system that has prevailed since 1958, controlling state jobs and allegedly pilfering coffers.

Both major parties — the center-left Democratic Action and the center-right COPEI — face internal revolts. In the past two weeks, both parties dumped their own candidates, throwing support behind Salas Romer in a last-ditch campaign to derail Chavez.

Baffled by ballots Last-minute ballot changes confused many voters, who did not know – or learned belatedly – that a vote for Democratic Action or COPEI would go to Salas Romer.

Washington watched the vote closely.

Situated close to U.S. shores, Venezuela is among the largest providers of crude oil to the United States.

U.S. officials denied a visa to Chavez after his 1992 military insurrection but have moderated their tone as his triumph looked inevitable.

“Our policy is to work with any government, no matter who is elected,” U.S. Ambassador John F. Maisto said. “With respect to what we know about Mr. Chavez’s platform, we will have to see what his policies are, in fact, and see whom he will appoint to key positions,” he added.

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gestures during a campaign rally for his reelection in Valencia, Carabobo state, Venezuela on October 3, 2012.

LUIS ACOSTA AFP/Getty Images

A strong nationalist, Chavez never expressed remorse for his role in the Feb. 4, 1992, insurrection. At the time, he said he was surrendering “for now.”

At a rally last week, he said the “now” had arrived. As recently as two months ago, an erratic Chavez threatened to “fry” the heads of opponents and hinted at a suspension of payments on the nation’s $55 billion debt. Critics feared that Chavez, if elected, would close Congress and rule by decree.

But Chavez has moderated his public image, vowing to seek constitutional reform through legal, peaceful means and no longer threatening his enemies. On learning of his triumph, he immediately issued reassuring remarks.

“We are going to generate confidence, and this is my first message to investors confidence. But more than say it, I’m going to show it,” he said. “We guarantee your investments.”

When he takes office Feb. 2, Chavez will inherit dire problems, including a $5 billion deficit, record-low oil prices, soaring 30 percent inflation, and an overvalued currency. Planning Minister Teodoro Petkoff predicted recently that total oil exports for 1999 could reach just $7 billion, against $18 billion in 1997.

– TIM JOHNSON

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