President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela died Tuesday afternoon after a long battle with cancer, the government announced, leaving behind a bitterly divided nation in the grip of a political crisis that grew more acute as he languished for weeks, silent and out of sight in hospitals in Havana and Caracas.
With his voice cracking and close to tears, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said that he and other officials had gone to the military hospital where Chavez was being treated, sequestered from the public, when ‘‘we received the hardest and most tragic information that we could transmit to our people.’’
Chavez’s departure from a country he dominated for 14 years casts into doubt the future of his socialist revolution. It alters the political balance in Venezuela, the fourth-largest foreign oil supplier to the United States, and in Latin America, where Chavez led a group of nations intent on reducing US influence in the region.
Chavez, 58, changed Venezuela in fundamental ways, empowering and energizing millions of poor people who had felt marginalized and excluded. But Chavez’s rule also widened society’s divisions. His death is sure to bring more changes and vast uncertainty as the nation tries to find its way without its central figure.
The Venezuelan Constitution says that the nation should ‘‘proceed to a new election’’ within 30 days when a president dies and that the vice president should take over in the meantime.
The election is likely to pit Maduro, whom Chavez designated as his political successor, against Henrique Capriles Radonski, a young state governor who ran against Chavez in a presidential election in October. But there has been heated debate in recent months over clashing interpretations of the constitution, in light of Chavez’s illness, and it is impossible to predict how the post-Chavez transition will proceed.
‘‘We, your civilian and military companions, Commander Hugo Chavez, assume your legacy, your challenges, your project, accompanied by and with the support of the people,’’ Maduro told the nation.
Only hours earlier, the government seemed to go into a state of heightened alert as Maduro convened a crisis meeting in Caracas of Cabinet ministers, governors loyal to the president and top military commanders. Taking a page out of Chavez’s time-tested playbook, Maduro warned in a lengthy televised speech that the United States was seeking to destabilize the country. He said the government had expelled two US military attaches, accusing one of seeking to recruit Venezuelan military personnel. He called on Venezuelans to unite as he raised the spectre of foreign intervention.
Chavez long accused the US of trying to undermine or even assassinate him, using Washington as a foil to build support or distract attention from deeply rooted problems at home, like high inflation and soaring crime.U.S. officials had hoped to improve relations under Maduro, with informal talks taking place last year.
But more recently, the government has appeared to shift into campaign mode, taking sweeping aim at the Venezuelan opposition and playing up its real or alleged ties to the US for political gain.
‘‘We completely reject the Venezuelan government’s claim that the United States is involved in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuelan government,’’ Robert Ventrell, a State Department spokesman, said after the expulsion of the US attaches. ‘‘Notwithstanding the significant differences between our governments, we continue to believe it important to seek a functional and more productive relationship with Venezuela.’’
Chavez was given a diagnosis of cancer in June 2011, but throughout his treatment he kept many details about his illness secret, refusing to say what kind of cancer he had or where in his body it occurred. He had three operations from June 2011 to February 2012, as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but the cancer kept coming back. The surgery and most other treatments were done in Cuba.
Then, on December 8, just two months after winning re-election, Chavez stunned the nation by announcing in a sombre televised address that he needed yet another surgery. That operation, his fourth, took place in Havana on December 11, after which he was not seen again in public, and his voice fell silent.
Chavez’s aides eventually announced that a tube had been inserted in his trachea to help his breathing and that, as a result, he had difficulty speaking. It was the ultimate paradox for a man who seemed never at a loss for words, often improvising for hours at a time on television, haranguing, singing, lecturing, reciting poetry and orating.
As the weeks dragged on, tensions rose in Venezuela, and the situation turned increasingly bizarre. Officials in Chavez’s government strove to project an image of business as usual and deflected inevitable questions about a vacuum at the top. At the same time, the country struggled with an out-of-balance economy, troubled by soaring prices and escalating shortages of basic goods.The opposition, weakened after defeats in the presidential election in October and elections for governor in December, in which its candidates lost in 20 of 23 states, sought to keep pressure on the government.Then officials suddenly announced February 18 that Chavez had returned to Caracas. He arrived unseen on a predawn flight and was installed in a military hospital, where he was continuing treatments, aides said.
New York Times
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.