Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died today a long battle with cancer. President Hugo Chavez, the fiery populist who declared a socialist revolution in Venezuela and crusaded against US influence, died on Tuesday at 4.25pm local time at the age of 58 after a nearly two-year bout with cancer.
Mr Chavez underwent surgery in Cuba in June 2011 to remove what he said was a baseball-size tumour from his pelvic region and the cancer returned repeatedly over the next 18 months despite more surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. He kept secret key details of his illness, including the type of cancer and the precise location of the tumours.
During more than 14 years in office, Mr Chavez routinely challenged the status quo at home and internationally. He polarised Venezuelans with his confrontational and domineering style, yet was also a masterful communicator and strategist who tapped into the country’s nationalism to win broad support, particularly among the poor.
President Hugo Chavez was a former paratroop commander and self-styled “subversive” who waged continual battle for his socialist ideals. He bedeviled the United States and outsmarted his rivals time and again, while using Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to his political advantage.
Chavez led one coup attempt, defeated another and was re-elected three times. Almost the only adversary it seemed he couldn’t beat was cancer.
Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born on July 28, 1954, in the rural town of Sabaneta in Venezuela’s western plains, the son of schoolteachers and the second of six brothers. He was raised by his grandmother. He rose from poverty in a dirt-floor, mud-walled house, a “humble soldier” in the battle for socialism. He fashioned himself after 19th-century independence leader Simon Bolivar and renamed his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
“El Comandante” – as Mr Chavez was known – electrified crowds with his booming voice, often wearing the bright red of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela or the fatigues and red beret of his army days.
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 oil wealth to launch social programs that included state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs. While poverty declined during his presidency amid a historic boom in oil earnings, critics said he failed to use the windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars to develop the country’s economy.
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.
Chavez also was inspired by his mentor Fidel Castro and took on the Cuban leader’s role as Washington’s chief antagonist in the Western Hemisphere after the ailing Castro turned over the presidency to his brother Raul in 2006. Like Castro, Chavez decried U.S.-style capitalism while forming alliances throughout Latin America and with distant powers such as Russia, China and Iran.
Supporters eagerly raised Chavez to the pantheon of revolutionary legends ranging from Castro to Argentine-born rebel Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Chavez nurtured that cult of personality, and even as he stayed out of sight for long stretches during his bout with cancer, his out-sized image appeared on buildings and billboard throughout Venezuela. The airwaves boomed with his baritone mantra: “I am a nation.”
Critics saw Chavez as a typical Latin American caudillo, a strongman who ruled through force of personality and showed disdain for democratic rules. Chavez concentrated power in his hands with allies who dominated the congress and justices who controlled the Supreme Court.
“El Comandante,” as he was known, insisted Venezuela remained a vibrant democracy and denied charges that he sought to restrict free speech. But some opponents faced criminal charges and were driven into exile.
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.
On Tuesday, Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez posted photos on his blog of a past encounter with Chavez, the Venezuelan leader singing along as he strummed a guitar.
“Goodbye forever, comandante,” Rodriguez wrote.