Hugo Chavez, the self-declared socialist who transformed Venezuelan politics by channeling record oil revenue to the poor, nationalizing corporations and vilifying foes as U.S. imperialist puppets, has died. He was 58.
Chavez died yesterday at 4:25 p.m. at a military hospital in Caracas, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said on state television. On Dec. 10, 2012, Chavez arrived in Cuba to undergo his fourth cancer operation in 18 months the following day, two months after winning re-election in a campaign in which he told voters he was “totally free” of the disease. It was the last time he would be seen in public.
“We received the most difficult and tragic information that we can transmit to our people,” a sobbing Maduro said yesterday while flanked by Cabinet officials and Jorge Arreaza, Chavez’s son-in-law. “Comandante Chavez, we will assume your legacy, your project, your challenges. Wherever you are, comandante, on behalf of this people that you protected and loved we thank you.”
A former paratrooper who spent two years in jail after leading a failed 1992 coup, Chavez revolutionized and polarized Venezuelan politics. Taking inspiration from ex-Cuban President Fidel Castro, he built homes and medical clinics for the poor, nationalized more than 1,000 companies or their assets and built an anti-American alliance stretching from Iran to Nicaragua. He won re-election three times in 12 years.
“There’s no doubt that Hugo Chavez transformed Venezuela,” said Robert Pastor, a former U.S. National Security Adviser for Latin America under President Jimmy Carter. “One can debate whether the policies he pursued actually helped the masses, but you cannot question the fact that the majority felt that he was a leader who cared about them.”
Expressions of sympathy poured in from around the world. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called Chavez’s death a loss for Latin America’s poor.
“He was a generous man to all the people in this continent who needed him,” a visibly emotional Rousseff said in Brasilia, where she marked Chavez’s death with a moment of silence yesterday.
U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement that the country seeks a “constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.”
Chavez’s body will lay in state at a military academy in Caracas for three days before a March 8 funeral, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said.
Chavez was unable to return to Caracas from Havana for a swearing-in ceremony to start his third six-year term on Jan. 10 after winning about 55 percent of the vote over Henrique Capriles Radonski in October. He traveled back to the capital Feb. 18, 2013, and was transferred to a military hospital, the government said.
Aside from photos the government published Feb. 15 of Chavez in his Havana hospital bed, Venezuelans hadn’t seen or heard from their president since he stepped off a plane in Cuba for his Dec. 11 operation.
Chavez suffered a respiratory infection following the surgery that required the use of a tracheal tube and left him unable to speak, the government said.
Under Venezuela’s constitution, an election must be held within 30 days. Maduro will serve as interim president until then, Jaua said on state television yesterday.
In a national address from Caracas on Dec. 8, 2012, Chavez said he suffered bouts of pain and was advised by his doctors to have surgery immediately. Preparing to return to Cuba, he called on Venezuelans to unite behind Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader who became foreign minister, as his successor.
“There is risk in this process that you can’t deny,” a somber Chavez said during a late-night address from the presidential palace, flanked by Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello. “It’s my firm opinion, clear like a full moon, irrevocable, absolute, total, that in a scenario that would oblige new presidential elections that you should elect Nicolas Maduro.”
Two days later Chavez returned to Cuba for more surgery. Previous treatments had also included chemotherapy and radiation.
Like his mentor Castro, Chavez could captivate followers during six-hour improvised monologues during which he sang, toured socialist farming co-operatives, criticized ministers for inefficiency and told stories about his days as a tank battalion leader. The speeches infuriated detractors, who banged pots and pans in protest and accused him of installing communism.
One of his most memorable moments on the world stage came in 2006 when, during a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Chavez said that the podium still smelled like sulfur one day after George W. Bush spoke there, calling the then-U.S. President the “devil.”
“Yesterday, ladies and gentleman, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman whom I refer to as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world,” Chavez said.
Along with Castro, Chavez paid homage to the 19th-century liberator of Venezuela and most of the Andean region, Simon Bolivar, citing his writings and changing the name of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. He even exhumed the legendary general’s bones in an attempt to prove that he had been poisoned by Colombian oligarchs and didn’t die from natural causes as is historically documented.
Chavez said that he wouldn’t rest until Bolivar’s dream of a Latin America united and independent from foreign powers was realized. He tapped the world’s largest oil reserves to provide about $7 billion annually in subsidized crude to Cuba and its Caribbean neighbors, more than three times what the U.S. spends in aid in the Western Hemisphere.
Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born on July 28, 1954, to Hugo de los Reyes Chavez and Elena Frias de Chavez in the small western town of Sabaneta in Barinas state. The region is known for its cattle, cowboy culture and joropo harp music. Raised in a working-class family, Chavez was brought up largely by his grandmother and sold sweets on the street after school to supplement the household’s income.
A baseball fan and amateur pitcher, he admired Nestor Isaias Chavez (no relation), a Venezuelan who pitched for the San Francisco Giants in the 1960s, and like Castro, wanted to play professional ball in the U.S. During a 1999 visit to New York, he threw out the first pitch at a Mets game at Shea Stadium. He also rang the closing bell on the New York Stock Exchange.
After entering a military academy in 1975, Chavez began reading socialist authors and spending time with people dedicated to changing the country’s political system, which he viewed as corrupt and impervious to growing social problems. He received a master’s degree in political science from Simon Bolivar University in 1990.
Violent riots over a rise in gasoline and public transportation costs in 1989 that left hundreds dead prompted Chavez to lead a coup attempt in 1992. He was pushed into the public eye for the first time after surrendering and telling television reporters that his mission to take power had failed, “for now.” He was jailed for two years before being pardoned.
Returning to national politics in 1998, he ended a 40-year, two-party political system by defeating a former Miss Universe, Irene Saenz, for the presidency with 56 percent of the vote. His coalition put education, health care and cheap access to basic foods at the forefront of its policies while Chavez made himself accessible to the country’s poorest citizens.
In a prescient essay published before Chavez took office, Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez described the “two faces” of the former coup leader he had interviewed: “One to whom good luck had given the opportunity to save his nation and the other an illusionist who could go down in history as just another despot,” he wrote in the Colombian magazine Cambio.
In the years ahead, Chavez would rewrite the constitution, win re-election in 2000 and extend his term to six years from five years. He would later abolish term limits altogether in a 2009 referendum. Critics said that through his legislative changes and control of the media, Chavez had effectively become a dictator.
His anti-U.S. sentiment and wish to regain control of the oil industry led Chavez to tour the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries early in his presidency to seek OPEC’s consensus on boosting the price of crude.
As prices for Venezuelan crude surged more than 10-fold, to about $126 a barrel in 2008 from less than $9 a barrel when he took office, Chavez began to pour money into social programs, helping to cut the poverty rate by half. He also froze gasoline and electricity tariffs.
Chavez radicalized his agenda following a 2002 coup that removed him from power for 48 hours and after a two-month general strike later that year paralyzed oil production. He responded by firing more than 18,000 employees of Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the state oil company, and replacing its board.
The strike caused the economy to shrink 27 percent in the first quarter of 2003 while unemployment rose to 20 percent.
Chavez overhauled his economic policies after the strike by installing currency controls and price ceilings on basic goods such as corn meal, beef and milk. He started a nationalization drive that would give the state majority control of almost every industry, a move that sparked shortages of basic goods and inflation of more than 30 percent.
Chavez accused the U.S. of orchestrating and financing the attempted overthrow and sharpened his tone against what he called the “empire.” The U.S. rejected the charges, though White House spokesman Ari Fleischer initially blamed the unrest on Chavez and said -- incorrectly, as it turned out -- that Chavez had “resigned the presidency.”
Sanctions that prohibited Chavez from buying military equipment from the U.S. prompted him to turn to Russia, China and Iran as commercial partners. He defended Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi as he fought a 2011 rebellion that would take his life and called his alliance with Iran “holy.”
Chavez was re-elected in 2006, to a six-year term, with more than 60 percent of the vote. The following year he narrowly lost a referendum to solidify his socialist policies by changing the nation’s constitution.
The political opposition -- which had sat out parliamentary elections in 2005, leaving Chavez with a near absolute majority in Congress -- gained ground in regional elections in 2008 and won the popular vote in congressional elections in 2010.
Known for a work schedule that often involved 40 cups of coffee a day and cabinet meetings lasting past midnight, Chavez slowed down his furious pace in 2011 after a knee injury sidelined him from a regional tour.
After visiting Brazil and Ecuador he was operated on in Cuba, where he said doctors discovered a pelvic abscess and later a cancerous tumor. Recovery kept him on the island for almost one month. Maduro said that Chavez’s body couldn’t withstand the frenetic pace of his presidency up to that point.
“Chavez is a work machine,” Maduro said in a June 11, 2011, interview on the Telesur television network that Chavez created and financed. “For the last 12 years he’s sustained an intense agenda. With so much tension some part of his body had to give. Chavez forgets about rest.”
Chavez would undergo three more operations in Cuba. Attending a Roman Catholic mass with his parents, Hugo and Elena, following radiation treatment in April 2012, Chavez wiped tears from his face and pleaded for his life.
“I ask God to give me life, however painful,” said Chavez, who earlier in his presidency frequently clashed with Vatican officials over his support for socialism. “I can carry 100 crosses, your crown of thorns, but don’t take me yet. I still have things to do.”
Chavez, who was divorced twice, had four children.