Hugo Chavez, a former Venezuelan Army officer who had lead a failed coup attempt against then-President Carlos Andres Perez in 1992, and who died from natural causes in March 2013, was a populist leader who's political base was the poor of Venezeula.
Like much of Latin America, there have historically been huge gaps between the wealthy and the poor in Venezuela, although Venezuela does have a thriving middle class as well. After his failed attempt to overthrow the government in 1992, Chavez was imprisoned for two years, following which became leader of a Socialist party, the Fifth Republic Movement. His appeals to the plight of the lower classes helped propel him to electoral victory in the 1998 presidential election.
Once in power, Chavez immediately began implementing policies that were decidedly undemocratic, including extra-judicial measures aimed at his political opponents and restricting and eventually controlling the media. Despite his dictatorial tendencies, he remained popular with Venezuela's poor up until his death on March 5, 2013. Chavez's Plan Bolivar 2000, which dramatically expanded social welfare programs for the poor, and his nationalization of formerly privately-owned businesses would prove beneficial to the poor, but ultimately at the expense of Venezuela's economy and of its credibility in international financial markets.
A major producer and exporter of petroleum, including to the United States, Venezeula's oil exports account for a large share of its budget. Chavez utilized revenue from oil exports to help finance his social welfare programs. While the main Venezuelan oil company, PDVSA, had long been largely nationalized -- in other words, ownership and control is in govenment hands instead of private hands -- Chavez increasingly sought to control PDVSA, forcing out many workers and company officials and replacing them with people more loyal to the president.
While Chavez championed the rights and welfare of the poor, his policies actually increased the levels of unemployment and inflation in the country and alienated much of the middle class.