Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who went from a young conspiratorial soldier who dreamed of revolution to the fiery anti-U.S. leader of one of the world’s great oil powers, died March 5 in Caracas of complications from an unspecified cancer in his pelvic area.
He was 58 and had been president since 1999, longer than any other democratically elected leader in the Americas. Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced the death.
Mr. Chavez first revealed in a brief, dramatic television address in June 2011 that he had undergone two surgical procedures in Cuba. He would go under the knife two more times, greatly weakening the once robust leader. Mr. Chavez had been elected in October 2012 to a third six-year term. But he missed his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 10 while lying gravely ill in a Havana hospital after undergoing what his aides had called a complex operation a month before.
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The country was plunged into an institutional crisis, with Mr. Chavez’s foes accusing the government of violating the constitution. But Mr. Chavez’s lieutenants managed to buy time until their leader’s pre-dawn return to Venezuela on Feb. 18. He remained at a Caracas military hospital, with his Twitter account bursting out messages such as “Onward toward victory always!! We will live and we will triumph!!”
As an obscure 37-year-old lieutenant colonel, Mr. Chavez had led a failed coup in 1992 against President Carlos Andres Perez’s government. Six years later, on Dec. 6, 1998, Mr. Chavez was elected president in a landslide after pledging to replace a broken, corrupt political system and redistribute the country’s substantial oil-fueled wealth.
Mr. Chavez left Venezuela deeply polarized, his supporters lionizing him as a courageous rebel determined to take on the elites, and his foes painting him as a dangerous demagogue and strongman.
The former army paratrooper promised a revolution and reveled in what he considered a battle to end all vestiges of the power structure then in place in Venezuela, especially its close economic and political ties to the United States.
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Quickly moving to overturn the old order, Mr. Chavez marginalized the traditional power brokers who had held influence in Venezuela, attacked establishment institutions and upended the country’s economy.
Combative in olive green uniform and red beret, Mr. Chavez called his opponents “degenerates” and “squealing pigs,” referred to the Catholic Church hierarchy as “devils in vestments” and labeled critics “counterrevolutionaries.”
“Oligarchs tremble, because now is when the revolution is going forward,” he warned in 2000, after the constitution had been redrawn and a new legislature dominated by his allies had taken over. “This is going to be delicious; we’re going to deliver a knockout punch to the counterrevolution.”
His guiding light was the 19th-century independence liberator Simon Bolivar, whose pronouncements, writings and philosophy found their way into nearly every speech Mr. Chavez gave.
The new president renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and he labeled his philosophy Bolivarian. Mr. Chavez sought the unification of South America, reviving Bolivar’s unmet dream. He also called for a rejection of the so-called Washington Consensus, a policy that includes a drop in tariffs, adherence to tight spending, privatizations of state industries and other economic orthodoxy.
A gifted, charismatic orator with a keen ability to connect with the poor masses, Mr. Chavez was able to marshal public backing for a series of referendums that created a new constitution and permitted him to bring every important institution — from the legislature to the state oil company — under his control.
On the world stage, Mr. Chavez set Venezuela on a collision course with Washington, blaming American foreign policy and U.S.-style capitalism for much of Latin America’s social ills.
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For an international left that was yearning for a passionate and magnetic leader, Mr. Chavez was a blessing.
He criticized the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and, in a speech at the United Nations in 2006, said President George W. Bush was “the devil.” He called Tony Blair, then Britain’s prime minister, “an imperialist pawn who attempts to curry favor” with the Americans. He accused Israel of genocide, saying its treatment of the Palestinian people was akin to a “new Holocaust.”
Mr. Chavez sought out relationships with assorted rebel groups, rogues and pariah governments. He exchanged letters with Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a Venezuelan-born terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal, who was held in a French prison. He asserted that Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya was a model of participatory democracy.