- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who led a socialist revolution in the heart of Latin America and garnered global notoriety for allying with Iran and railing angrily and often against the United States, died Tuesday after losing a long battle against cancer. He was 58.

Supporters of Chavez accused his “imperialist enemies” of infecting the weakened president with a severe respiratory illness months after he traveled to Cuba for a cancer operation. He underwent his first cancer surgery in Cuba in June 2011, and his last operation was in December after he won re-election to a third term.

Reviled as a dictator by American conservatives, free-market advocates and many pro-democracy activists around the world, Chavez was regarded as one of the most polarizing figures in the Western Hemisphere in a generation — and reaction in Washington to his death ranged from cautious optimism at the White House to good riddance on Capitol Hill.

SEE ALSO: Chavez calls Bush ‘the devil himself’ at U.N.

In a statement, President Obama joined calls for a peaceful transfer of power and seemed to open the door to improved relations with Chavez’s vice president, Nicolas Maduro, who is expected to assume the Venezuelan presidency until a constitutionally required election is held in 30 days.

“At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government,” Mr. Obama said. “As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.”

Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chavez in a presidential election in October, is expected to remobilize opposition in the divided nation and provide a formidable challenge for the presidency to Chavez’s party.

SEE ALSO: Carter statement lauds Chavez

Elsewhere in Washington, leaders were more direct in their comments on Chavez’s passing:

“For more than a decade, the Venezuelan people have suffered under the authoritarian rule of Hugo Chavez. He cracked down on freedom of the press and arrested judges and opposition leaders who didn’t agree with him,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican.

“Additionally, he used petrodollars stolen from the Venezuelan people to extend his influence and fund the sinister agendas of cruel dictators like [Cuban leader Fidel] Castro, [Iran’s Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad.”

The Venezuelan leader often was compared to China’s Mao Zedong and other communist revolutionaries, having built a cult of personality with followers — the “Chavistas” — hailing him as a political saint and champion of the poor.

A close friend and understudy of Mr. Castro, Chavez also has been compared to Che Guevara, the militant Marxist who helped Mr. Castro’s rise during the 1950s and sparked communist fervor across South America until CIA-trained soldiers assassinated him in Bolivia in 1967.

Boosted by a failed coup

Chavez rose to power in the 1990s, when Venezuela — plagued by rampant corruption in the government of President Carlos Andres Perez and rocked by plummeting world oil prices — plunged into economic crisis.

In the wake of violent anti-capitalist street demonstrations, Chavez, then a lieutenant colonel in the Venezuelan army, attempted to lead a socialist military coup. When the coup failed, Mr. Perez’s government allowed Chavez, a previously unknown figure, to appear on national television to publicly surrender and avoid further bloodshed.

The result was a minute-long televised statement in which Chavez told viewers: “I, alone, shoulder the responsibility for this Bolivarian military uprising.”

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