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 fuelled rumours 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.