Venezuela's economy is tightly tied to oil, its biggest export to date. The South American nation has the biggest oil reserves in the world. In 2017, Venezuela's oil reserves totaled 302.81 billion barrels, according to data from OPEC.
While crude prices trended lower in the 1980s and 1990s, they recovered sharply right before the turn of the century, giving the Chavez government a massive windfall to put in motion several reforms like free health care. The spike in crude also gave Chavez the capital he needed to try and undercut U.S. influence in Latin America.
In 2004, Venezuela and Cuba created an economic alliance called the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. In 2005, Chavez founded Petrocaribe, a group of countries that lets members purchase oil from Venezuela at a lower price.
"Chavez used his windfall oil profits to stick it to the U.S. whenever he could," said Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center. Chavez also used the U.S. as a scapegoat for Venezuela's troubles, Marczak added.
Chavez also accused the U.S. of aiding in an attempted coup against his government back in 2002. While the Bush administration tried to distance itself from the coup attempt, documents found in 2004 showed the CIA knew of an attempted coup back then.
The U.S. has also condemned Venezuela for imprisoning political opponents as well as the Chavez regime's consolidation of power. Chavez seized control of the country's supreme court in 2004. He also increased his control over the local media, passing laws that penalized outlets for running content that "offends" public officials.