Pitched political struggle expected in petro-rich Venezuela.
After struggling for many months with cancer the form of which was never fully disclosed, Hugo Chavez, the firebrand President of Venezuela, adversary of the United States and former soldier, finally succumbed - passing away yesterday at the age of 58 in a Caracas military hospital.
While his death will end months of suspense that have cast a shadow of uncertainty across both his country and its leftist allies in the region, it also plunges one of the world's leading petro-nations into what is certain to be a pitched political struggle, the outcome of which remains uncertain.
Not that the socialist state machine that Chavez led has not had time to prepare. After winning a third term as President last October, Chavez abruptly declared on December 10 last year that he was once again in the grip of the cancer that was first diagnosed in July 2011. The next day, after a tearful national television broadcast, he vanished to Havana, Cuba, for treatment. He was never to be seen publicly again.
The death of one of Latin America's most egotistical, bombastic and polarising leaders was announced on television by Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, who is expected to fight in a snap election to succeed him.
Chavez, he told a shocked nation, had died "after battling a tough illness for nearly two years".
The prolonged absence of Chavez had caused tensions, notably since his failure to turn up for his own inauguration in Caracas in January. Against furious remonstrations from the opposition, the Government insisted at the time that the leader was still in charge of the nation from his hospital bed.
Opposition patience with this and with the relative lack of clear information of what the condition of Chavez was had been wearing extremely thin. In mid-February, the Government allowed the first pictures of Chavez to be published, which showed him in his hospital cot being attended to by two of his daughters. Shortly after he was flown in the dead of night to Caracas, where he was installed in the main military hospital. It seems now that he was moved so he could at least die on his own soil.
The constitution demands that elections be held across the country within 30 days to elect a new president and Maduro and his allies will doubtless attempt to capitalise on public sympathy. His death comes, however, at a time of uncertainty for Venezuela. Inflation and the rate of violent crime have soared and Chavez leaves a population that is politically deeply divided.
While Maduro will vow to extend the so-called Bolivarian socialist revolution that was begun by Chavez, the opposition has a seasoned candidate in Henrique Capriles, a provincial governor, who built a wide base of support fighting in the presidential contest last summer.
The announcement came just hours after Maduro announced the Government had expelled two United States diplomats from the country, suggesting that the US and its allies had been responsible for Chavez contracting cancer. "We have no doubt" that Chavez's cancer had been somehow induced by foul play by "the historical enemies of our homeland", the Vice-President said.
Just as Chavez was divisive in his political life, his passing provoked reactions ranging from despair to delight. "Hugo Chavez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear," declared the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington, Ed Royce. Meanwhile, President Cristina Kirchner, an ally who may have designs on replacing him as Latin America's scourge of Washington, said all government activities in Argentina were being suspended as a tribute.
"He was a generous man to all the people in this continent who needed him," an emotional Dilma Rousseff, the President of Brazil, said in Brasilia.
President Barack Obama issued a conciliatory statement: "At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez's passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan Government."
The left wing soldier
Name: Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias.
Title: President of Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Born: July 28, 1954, in rural town of Sabaneta in plains of western Venezuela.
Education: Attended public schools, entered Venezuelan Military Academy in 1971 as army cadet.
Before taking office: As paratrooper and military-academy history teacher, Chavez quietly organised network of dissident soldiers. On February 4, 1992, attempted coup against President Carlos Andres Perez. Plot failed. Faced 30 years in prison but next President pardoned him before trial.
Chavez's presidency: Elected as reform candidate December 6, 1998; took office February 2, 1999. Oversaw approval of new constitution that lengthened presidential term from five years to six. Forged alliance with Cuba and increasingly criticised United States. Survived failed coup in 2002 and continued to build power, while emerging as Western Hemisphere's most vocal leftist leader. Sent aid to allied countries and built support among poor at home with social programmes. Won re-election in 2006 and again in 2012.
Family: Married and divorced twice. Had four children and four grandchildren. One daughter, either Maria or Rosa, often stood at his side at official events, unofficially filling in as first lady.
Quote: "What hurts me most is poverty, and that's what led me to become a rebel," Chavez said during 2007 interview with the Associated Press.
- APBy David Usborne