Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died on 5th March, 2013 after a two-year battle with cancer, ending 14 years of tumultuous rule that made the socialist leader a hero for the poor.
The flamboyant 58-year-old had undergone four operations in Cuba for a cancer that was first detected in his pelvic region in mid-2011. His last surgery was on December 11 and he had not been seen in public since.
His death was announced by vice president Nicolas Maduro.
“We have just received the most tragic and awful information. At 4.25 p.m. (2055 GMT) today March the 5th, President Hugo Chavez Frias died,” Maduro announced in a televised address.
“It’s a moment of deep pain,” he said in the address, in which he appeared with senior ministers.
As soon as the news was announced, his supporters — mostly from poor neighbourhoods — gathered at the city’s main square and began chanting: “Chavez lives, the battle continues.” As night fell, thousands of Chavez followers, wearing the red beret the president was known for, gathered on streets and sang a popular folk song with the words: “Those who die for life cannot be called dead.”
Chavez easily won a new six-year term at an election in October and his death will devastate millions of supporters who adored his charismatic style, anti-U.S. rhetoric and oil-financed policies that brought subsidized food and free health clinics to long-neglected slums.
Detractors, however, saw his one-man style, gleeful nationalizations and often harsh treatment of opponents as traits of an egotistical dictator whose misplaced statist economics wasted a historic bonanza of oil revenues.
Chavez’s death opens the way for a new election that will test whether his socialist “revolution” can live on without his dominant personality at the helm.
A self-described “subversive,” Chavez fashioned himself after the 19th Century independence leader Simon Bolivar and renamed his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
He called himself a “humble soldier” in a battle for socialism and against US hegemony. He thrived on confrontation with Washington and his political opponents at home, and used those conflicts to rally his followers.
During more than 14 years in office, his leftist politics and grandiose style polarized Venezuelans. The barrel-chested leader electrified crowds with his booming voice, and won admiration among the poor with government social programs and a folksy, nationalistic style.
His opponents seethed at the larger-than-life character who demonized them on television and ordered the expropriation of farms and businesses. Many in the middle class cringed at his bombast and complained about rising crime, soaring inflation and government economic controls.
Chavez used his country’s vast oil wealth to launch social programs that included state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs.
Poverty declined during Chavez’s presidency amid a historic boom in oil earnings, but critics said he failed to use the windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars to develop the country’s economy.
Inflation soared and the homicide rate rose to among the highest in the world.
Before his struggle with cancer, he appeared on television almost daily, frequently speaking for hours and breaking into song or philosophical discourse.
He often wore the bright red of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or the fatigues and red beret of his army days. He had donned the same uniform in 1992 while leading an ill-fated coup attempt that first landed him in jail and then launched his political career.
The rest of the world watched as the country with the world’s biggest proven oil reserves took a turn to the left under its unconventional leader, who considered himself above all else a revolutionary.
“I’m still a subversive,” the president told The Associated Press in a 2007 interview, recalling his days as a rebel soldier. “I think the entire world has to be subverted.”
Chavez burst into public view in 1992 as a paratroop commander leading a military rebellion that brought tanks to the presidential palace. When the coup collapsed, Chavez was allowed to make a televised statement in which he declared that his movement had failed “for now.”
The speech, and those two defiant words, launched his career, searing his image into the memory of Venezuelans.
Two years later, he and other coup prisoners were released from prison, and President Rafael Caldera dropped the charges against them.
After organizing a new party, Chavez ran for president in 1998, pledging to clean up Venezuela’s entrenched corruption and shatter its traditional two-party system. At age 44, he became the country’s youngest president in four decades of democracy with 56 percent of the vote.
After he took office on Feb. 2, 1999, Chavez called for a new constitution, and an assembly filled with his allies drafted the document. Among various changes, it lengthened presidential terms from five years to six and changed the country’s name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
By 2000, his increasingly confrontational style and close ties to Cuba disenchanted many of the middle-class supporters who voted for him, and the next several years saw bold attempts by opponents to dislodge him from power.
In 2002, he survived a short-lived coup, which began after large anti-Chavez street protests ended in shootings and bloodshed. Dissident military officers detained the president and announced he had resigned.
But within two days, he returned to power with the help of military loyalists amid massive protests by his supporters.
Chavez emerged a stronger president.
He defeated an opposition-led strike that paralyzed the country’s oil industry and fired thousands of state oil company employees.
The coup also turned Chavez more decidedly against the US government, which had swiftly recognized the provisional leader who briefly replaced him.
He created political and trade alliances that excluded the US, and he cozied up to Iran and Syria in large part, it seemed, due to their shared antagonism toward the US government. Despite the souring relationship, Chavez kept selling the bulk of Venezuela’s oil to the United States.
By 2005, Chavez was espousing a new, vaguely defined “21st-century socialism.” Yet the agenda didn’t involve a sudden overhaul to the country’s economic order, and some businesspeople continued to prosper. Those with lucrative ties to the government came to be known as the “Bolivarian bourgeoisie.”
After easily winning re-election in 2006, Chavez began calling for a “multi-polar world” free of US domination, part of an expanded international agenda. He boosted oil shipments to China, set up joint factories with Iran to produce tractors and cars, and sealed arms deals with Russia for assault rifles, helicopters and fighter jets.
He focused on building alliances throughout Latin America and injected new energy into the region’s left. Allies were elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and other countries.
Chavez also cemented relationships with island countries in the Caribbean by selling them oil on preferential terms while severing ties with Israel, supporting the Palestinian cause and backing Iran’s right to a nuclear energy program.
All the while, Chavez emphasized that it was necessary to prepare for any potential conflict with the “empire,” his term for the United States.
“It’s confronting the empire, and confronting evil. … And you end up relating to that gladiator,” Chavez said as he drove across Venezuela’s southern plains.
He said he felt a deep connection to those plains where he grew up, and that when died he hoped to be buried in the savanna.
“A man from the plains, from these great open spaces … tends to be a nomad, tends not to see barriers. What you see is the horizon,” Chavez said.
Running a revolution ultimately left little time for a personal life. His second marriage, to journalist Marisabel Rodriguez, deteriorated in the early years of his presidency, and they divorced in 2004. In addition to their one daughter, Rosines, Chavez had three children from his first marriage, which ended before he ran for office. His daughters Maria and Rosa often appeared at his side at official events and during his trips. He had one son, Hugo Rafael Chavez.
After he was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011, he acknowledged that he had recklessly neglected his health. He had taken to staying up late and drinking as many as 40 cups of coffee a day. He regularly summoned his Cabinet ministers to the presidential palace late at night.
Even as he appeared with head shaved while undergoing chemotherapy, he never revealed the exact location of tumors that were removed from his pelvic region, or the exact type of cancer.
Chavez exerted himself for one final election campaign in 2012 after saying tests showed he was cancer-free, and defeated younger challenger Henrique Capriles. With another six-year term in hand, he promised to keep pressing for revolutionary changes.
But two months later, he went to Cuba for a fourth cancer-related surgery, blowing a kiss to his country as he boarded the plane.
After a 10-week absence, the government announced that Chavez had returned to Venezuela and was being treated at a military hospital in Caracas. He was never seen again in public.
In his final years, Chavez frequently said Venezuela was well on its way toward socialism, and at least in his mind, there was no turning back.
His political movement, however, was mostly a one-man phenomenon. Only three days before his final surgery, Chavez named Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his chosen successor.
Now, it will be up to Venezuelans to determine whether the Chavismo movement can survive, and how it will evolve, without the leader who inspired it.