In the following years, the charismatic Chavez rattled off a string of electoral victories that made him seem almost invincible.
He won re-election in 2000, survived a recall election in 2004, and won another six-year term in 2006.
Chavez secured another re-election victory in October, describing his win as "a perfect battle, and totally democratic." He vowed to "be a better president every day."
A turning point for Chavez came in April 2002, when a coup briefly removed him from office.
But the interim government couldn't consolidate power, and within 48 hours, with the help of the military, Chavez returned to power.
While short-lived, the coup had a profound effect on Chavez, who took a more accelerated authoritarian and leftist turn afterward.
Human Rights Watch wrote in 2010 that the coup provided a pretext for policies that undercut human rights.
"Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chavez presidency," the report concluded.
"At times, the president himself has openly endorsed acts of discrimination. More generally, he has encouraged his subordinates to engage in discrimination by routinely denouncing his critics as anti-democratic conspirators and coup-mongers -- regardless of whether or not they had any connection to the 2002 coup," the report said.
He clamped down on broadcasters, other media
Consolidation of power in the presidency -- to the detriment of separation of powers -- became a theme in Chavez's policies.
Another challenge to Chavez's rule followed the coup. From December 2002 to February 2003, a crippling general strike pressured the president. The economy took a hit, but Chavez outlasted the strikers.
The following year, in 2004, the opposition gathered enough signatures to hold a recall referendum on Chavez, but again, the president survived.
Chavez's vitriol toward the United States also increased in the period after the brief coup because Washington had tacitly approved it.
In one of his most memorable insults, Chavez said of Bush in 2006 before the U.N. General Assembly:
"The devil came here yesterday. And it smells of sulfur still today."
In 2007, Chavez tasted defeat for the first time, in a referendum seeking approval for constitutional reforms that would have deepened his socialist policies. Nonetheless, thanks to a National Assembly friendly to him, Chavez achieved some of his goals, including indefinite re-election.
That same year, Chavez created a new political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, which merged his party with several other leftist parties.
His detractors accused him of being authoritarian, populist and even dictatorial for having pushed through a constitutional reform that allowed indefinite re-election.
Increasingly, Chavez used legislation to clamp down on broadcasters and other media. His government relentlessly went after opposition broadcaster Globovision, accusing it of a number of violations, from failure to pay taxes to disregarding a media responsibility law.