After struggling for many gruelling 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 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 now also plunges one of the world’s leading petro-nations into what is certain to be pitched political struggle, the outcome of which remains uncertain.
Not that the socialist state machine that Mr Chavez led has not had time to prepare. After winning a third term as President last October, Mr Chavez abruptly declared on 10 December 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 now expected to fight in a snap election to succeed him. Mr Chavez, he told a shocked nation, had died “after battling a tough illness for nearly two years”.
The prolonged absence of Mr Chavez had already 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 actual condition of Mr Chavez was had been wearing extremely thin. In mid-February, the government allowed the first pictures of Mr Chavez to be published, which showed him in his hospital cot being attended to by two of his daughters. Shortly thereafter 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 now demands that elections be held across the country within 30 days to elect a new president and Vice-president 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 Mr Chavez leaves a population that is politically deeply divided.
While Mr Maduro will vow to extend the so-called Bolivarian socialist revolution that was begun by Mr 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 Mr Maduro announced the government had expelled two US diplomats from the country, suggesting that the US and its allies had been responsible for Mr 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 Mr 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,” a visibly 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,” he said.
Vice-President’s statement: ‘Hardest news we’ll ever give the people’
“We came here to the military hospital to follow the sequence of our comandante president’s health. We were receiving information and we were accompanying his daughters, his brother, his family members and we received the hardest and the most tragic of news that we will ever transmit to our people. At 4:25 in the afternoon, today, the 5th of March, Comandante President Hugo Chavez Frias died.”
Hugo Chavez: His rise to power
28 July, 1954 Hugo Chavez Frias is born to a working-class family in Sabaneta in the state of Barinas.
1971 Enrols at the Academy of Military Sciences, graduates in 1975.
1982 Creates a new political cell within the army with two fellow officers. Called the MBR200 it is committed to overthrowing the “corrupt” political establishment.
1989 Now Lieutenant Chavez, he falls ill and is not called to suppress riots in Caracazo, which leave hundreds dead. Friends say his “missed opportunity” led him to intensify his preparations for a coup.
1992 Under Colonel Chavez’s command, soldiers loyal to the MBR200 try to seize key installations including the Miraflores presidential palace. The coup fails and he surrenders, giving a national televised address before being sent to prison.
1994 Receives pardon from President Rafael Caldera and is freed.
1998 Wins presidential election and promises to seek “third way” between socialism and capitalism.
1999 Venezuelans vote to accept a new Chavez-backed constitution, including renaming the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
2000 Re-elected to new six-year term.
2002 Protesters demand resignation. Dissident generals oust Chavez and clear way for interim government.
2002 Following huge protests by Chavez supporters, loyal army officers rescue Chavez, restore him to power.
2004 Venezuelans overwhelmingly vote against a referendum asking if Chavez should leave office.
2006 Chavez calls US President George W Bush “the devil” in speech before UN General Assembly.
2007 Government nationalises Venezuela’s largest private electric company.
2008 Chavez orders US ambassador to leave, accusing him of conspiring against his government.
2011 Undergoes surgery in Cuba for pelvic abscess. Confirms he had a cancerous tumour removed.
2012 Undergoes operation removing another tumour. Travels to Cuba to begin radiation therapy.
5 March 2013 Chavez dies after a battle with cancer.