CARACAS (AFP) – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lost his battle with cancer Tuesday, silencing the leading voice of the Latin American left and plunging his divided oil-rich nation into an uncertain future.
“We have received the toughest and tragic information that… comandante President Hugo Chavez died today at 4:25 pm,” a tearful Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced on television, directly from a Caracas military hospital.
“Long live Chavez,” the officials surrounding him shouted.
Chavez, who was 58, had been checked into the hospital on February 18 to continue chemotherapy after two months in Cuba, where in December he had undergone his fourth round of cancer surgery since June 2011.
After 14 years under the charismatic former paratrooper, Venezuelans now face the prospect of snap elections, with Maduro hand-picked to succeed him.
The once ubiquitous symbol of Latin America’s “anti-imperialist” left had disappeared from public view after flown to Cuba on December 10, an unusual absence that fueled rumors about his health.
He was only been seen in a few photos released last month, which showed him in his Havana hospital bed, smiling with his two daughters at his side.
The government had sent mixed signals about the president’s health for weeks, warning one day that he was battling for his life, yet insisting as recently as last weekend that Chavez was still in charge and giving orders.
But the opposition repeatedly accused the government of lying about the president’s condition.
Chavez will be mourned by many of the country’s poor, who revered the self-styled revolutionary for using the country’s oil riches to fund popular housing, health, food and education programs.
And like-minded Latin American leaders like Cuba’s Raul Castro, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales have lost a close friend who used his diplomatic muscle and cheap oil to shore up their rule.
Chavez died five months after winning an October election, overcoming a resurgent opposition and public frustration over a rising murder rate, regular blackouts and soaring inflation.
He missed his swearing-in for a new six-year term on January 10, but the Supreme Court approved an indefinite delay. Under Venezuela’s constitution an election must be held within 30 days of the president’s death.
A new election could offer another shot at the presidency to Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who lost to Chavez in October.
Until picking Maduro, 50, as his political heir, Chavez had never allowed other leaders to emerge within his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
He used the ballot box to consolidate his power and push through policies that drove a wedge into Venezuelan society, alienating the wealthy with expropriations while wooing the poor with social handouts.
Chavez won re-election in October vowing to make his self-styled 21st century revolution “irreversible.”
The opposition had accused Chavez of misusing public funds for his campaign and dominating the airwaves while forcing government workers to attend rallies through intimidation.
His death will particularly affect Cuba’s communist regime, whose moribund state-run economy has relied heavily on Chavez’s oil generosity.
Chavez received much of his treatment in secretive Cuba, away from prying Venezuelan media, and had a cancerous tumor removed from his pelvic area in June 2011. The exact nature and location of his cancer was never revealed.
Under Fidel Castro’s mentoring, Chavez became the face of the radical left in Latin America, with regular diatribes against US “imperialism” and the forging of ties with regimes at odds with Washington in Syria, Libya and Iran.
But despite tense relations with the United States, Chavez continued to export one million barrels of oil per day up north.
Before cancer slowed him down, Chavez was known for rousing speeches peppered with religious references, songs and quotes from South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
The then lieutenant colonel gate-crashed the political scene in 1992 when he led a failed coup against president Carlos Andres Perez.
After two years in prison, he decided to take power through democratic elections, winning in 1998 to become Venezuela’s youngest president at age 44.
After reforming the constitution to increase presidential terms to six years and reducing the powers of Congress, he easily won the 2000 election.
Chavez survived a short-lived coup in 2002 that lasted just 47 hours after popular protests restored him to power. A 2004 attempt by the opposition to oust him in a recall referendum was defeated.
His presidency was marked by growing economic interventionism, with a wave of nationalizations in strategic sectors such as cement, steel, food, electricity, telecommunications and banking.
With the slogan, “oil now belongs to all,” Chavez used proceeds from the state-run PDVSA oil giant to fund his revolution. Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves.
Elected to a second six-year term in 2006, Chavez then won a 2009 referendum that abolished the two-term limit and enabled him to run indefinitely.
Now, for the first time in 14 years, Venezuelans will not see his name on the next election’s ballot.