President Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998 after building his movement over the course of the decade. For many, his election signaled a spreading backlash to the failures of the oligarchy and neoliberalism systems of development that took hold in the country and through out Latin America. Chávez called for a peaceful and democratic "Bolivarian Revolution," appealing to Simon Bolívar's vision of continental sovereignty and cooperation. Many barrio residents and campesinos were already busy organizing in their communities, and the revolution quickly began to take shape. Chávez's government collected input from community groups all over the country in order to create a new constitution, which was ratified by a popular vote of around 70% and went into effect in 2000. The new constitution created a Constituent Assembly, which created measures for land reform and environmental protection along with new political, cultural and economic rights to immigrants, women, indigenous people and more. Chávez easily won re-election under the new constitution, and members of his coalition were elected to local offices nationwide.
Progress for Chávez's administration has slowed with US intervention and Venezuelan opposition, led by traditional elites who are now largely shut out of the circles of power. These changes within the government layered with Chávez's public criticisms of US foreign policy and ratifications for higher oil-royalities have clashed with the interests of US government and Venezuelan opposition. As a result the National Endowment for Democracy was formed and financed by such opposition groups. In 2002, the opposition staged a coups and the Assembly and Supreme Court were dissolved, but quickly thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets in the capital of Caracas, and swept Chávez back into office within 48 hours.
In 2003, another attempt to oust Chávez from power was made by opposition-affiliated executives of the state oil company PDVSA, who shut down the industry by locking out employees and sabotaging equipment. The lockout did enormous damage to the economy, but did not succeed in its goal of bringing the government to its knees: within two months workers successfully took over the factories and resumed production, guarded by teams of local volunteers.
Chávez's oil reforms lead to internal restructuring and new budgeting, directed the industry's profits into neighborhood social programs called "missions". These programs include preventive medical and dental care, vision treatment, literacy classes and multiple levels of education, child care, job training, technical and agricultural assistance, microloans, aid for cooperatives and women's businesses, subsidized food staples, support for indigenous communities and more.
In 2004, the US-funded opposition conducted a signature drive in order to hold a referendum on Chávez's presidency under a provision of the new constitution. Chávez submitted to the referendum, which he won with a landslide majority of record turnout and which was certified by many teams of international observers, including the US' own Carter Center.
Chávez is making good on his plan to forge multilateral economic relationships and build international solidarity. These relationships include media project TeleSur, energy projects with PetroSur and PetroCaribe, as well as a number of bilateral partnerships for trading goods and services.
Background on the Bolivarian revolution by Bonnie Johnson.