CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the charismatic socialist whose populist revolution reduced poverty and galvanized anti-American sentiment across Latin America but left his nation deeply polarized and ever more dependent on oil dollars, died Tuesday in Caracas after a nearly two-year battle with cancer. He was 58.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his voice breaking, announced the passing on national television, saying that Chavez had died at 4:25 p.m. Maduro did not say what exactly killed Chavez, although the government had announced the previous night that a severe new respiratory infection had severely weakened him.
A few hours later, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua affirmed one of Chavez’s final wishes: Maduro would be interim president and then be the ruling party’s candidate to carry on Chavez’s political movement in elections to be called within 30 days.
Chavez’s death followed repeated treatments for pelvic cancer in Cuba, the country of his idol Fidel Castro, where his condition was first diagnosed in June 2011.
Although Chavez finally disclosed the gravity of his illness in December after months of insisting he was cancer-free, news of his death was expected to shake his bedrock supporters, Venezuela’s poor. They were the biggest beneficiaries of his 14 years in power, a period in which opponents in the country’s middle class and elite said he grew increasingly iron-fisted and autocratic.
Chavez returned home from Cuba on Feb. 18 following his most recent surgery and remained out of sight at a military hospital in Caracas. Though he had been scheduled to be sworn in for a fourth term on Jan. 10, the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled he did not need to take the oath of office to remain president, a decision questioned by legal scholars.
His popularity with the poor helped propel him to victory in October balloting, gaining 55 percent of the vote despite rising crime, persistent scarcities of basic food items, double-digit inflation and unpopular foreign aid programs. His re-election was a testament to the near-religious devotion of Venezuela’s impoverished to their leader.
Chavez won the lower classes’ support by redistributing the nation’s vast oil wealth through welfare programs called missions, which set up medical clinics and schools, operated a chain of cut-rate grocery stores, and divvied up nationalized farms and ranches among cooperatives of the impoverished.
Daniel Hellinger, a political science professor at Webster University in St. Louis, said the welfare programs reduced Venezuela’s poverty rate from close to 80 percent in the 1990s to about 20 percent, and wiped out illiteracy.
“To millions of poor Venezuelans excluded from meaningful participation in politics, Chavez offered hope for a new kind of democracy that would open doors of government to them,” Hellinger said. “However much the system fell short of that aspiration, it was Chavez who gave voice to it.”
Chavez maintained his link to the poor partly through his weekly “Alo Presidente” television show, during which he performed much like a televangelist spreading the gospel of his revolution.
But opponents criticized Chavez for concentrating power in the style of a classic Latin American military dictator. Although he was democratically elected four times, and won several nationwide referendums, he closed TV and radio stations critical of him, armed a civilian militia and brought the bureaucracy under close control, detractors said.
Chavez nationalized scores of energy, banking and telecommunications companies in addition to more than 1 million acres of farmland. That caused a steep decline in Venezuelan investment and productivity and made the nation ever more dependent on oil sales.
Despite the vast sums Venezuela collected over the last decade from its energy reserves, Chavez was forced to borrow more than $38 billion from the Chinese in the final years of his presidency to finance his domestic welfare and foreign aid programs.
“The poor have had more money to spend, but it’s come at a great price,” said Jeffrey Davidow, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. “The money should have been put to productive use in industry, housing or education. So, in the long run, it hasn’t been of much help to Venezuelans.”
Chavez’s influence extended far beyond Venezuela’s borders. He roused Latin American opposition to the so-called Washington Consensus that developing nations should open their markets to free trade and foreign investors. He called President George W. Bush a terrorist for invading Afghanistan and the “devil” during a United Nations speech. He forged close links with other leftist leaders in the hemisphere.
That Chavez sought cancer treatment in Cuba was no coincidence. Chavez revered Castro and saw the Cuban revolution as a model for Venezuela. He gave generously to Cuba’s shaky socialist state, reportedly supplying the nation with 100,000 barrels of crude per day at cut-rate prices.
Before leaving for Cuba in December, Chavez named Maduro as his successor. The ruling party, however, is riven with factions and Maduro’s nomination for the upcoming election is not a sure thing, with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello seen as his chief rival.
In any case, Chavez’s death leaves the way ahead for his party and its policies anything but certain.