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.
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.
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.”
The moment immortalized Chavez for supporters, who were impressed that he took responsibility for the failed coup — a break from the tradition of corrupt Venezuelan leaders who never accepted blame for their failures. The story of Chavez’s failed coup and his television appearance soon became the lore of a socialist movement in the nation.
Chavez was swept into the presidency by popular election in 1998 and held on to power vigorously. Once in office, he moved swiftly to draft a new constitution and rename the country the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” to honor Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan revolutionary who, in the 1820s, led successful independence movements in all of Spain’s American colonies from Panama to Bolivia.
The move toward socialism created opponents, many of whom saw their private land seized by the government. Chavez’s office also expropriated all private oil interests in Venezuela and began channeling a portion of its profits into social programs.
Free basic health clinics, high school diploma programs and food banks began popping up in poor neighborhoods across the nation. The programs were immediate hits in a country where half of the 25 million citizens were living below the poverty line.
Democracy advocates soon became concerned that Chavez also was moving to centralize and drive his political opposition from the government and stack the country’s highest courts with his supporters.
The naked attempts to consolidate power tainted his legacy with many Latin America observers, particularly in the United States.
“Chavez’s historic legacy will be one of a social project marked by personalism, caprice, polarization and anomie,” said Christopher Sabatini, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Americas Quarterly magazine in New York.
“While Chavez, like Che Guevara or Fidel Castro, gave voice to a strain in Latin American politics by capturing the misguided romantic view that there is a fast path to social justice, unlike Castro or Che, Chavez was an institutional destroyer not a builder.
“[He] failed to build new institutions, even violating his own Bolivarian constitution by creating parallel structures of government and bypassing nominating procedures and never constructing … a coherent, organic party structure or movement.”
Chavez faced growing opposition in 2002, when masses of demonstrators took to the streets to protest his policies. Anti-Chavez military officers mounted a coup on April 11 that forced him from office, but the junta soon collapsed amid strong pro-Chavez demonstrations and he was back in office three days later.
Throughout his reign, Chavez dominated Venezuelan state media with his presence. In addition to appearing almost daily for lengthy stretches on state TV, he would speak for hours from towns across Venezuela in a weekly television broadcast called “Hello President.”
He drew the wrath of Washington by building alliances with anti-American regimes in Cuba and Iran. He supplied Cuba with 100,000 barrels of oil a day and allowed Iran to mine for uranium to help its suspected nuclear-weapons program. Chavez also supported leftist leaders such as Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.
Popular among U.S. liberals
Chavez’s oil-fueled socialism won him a quiet fan base among many liberals in the United States. He worked with Joseph Kennedy, the eldest son of Robert F. Kennedy, on a program funded by Venezuela’s state-controlled oil monopoly to dole out free heating fuel to poor and elderly Americans.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who observed elections in Venezuela, on Tuesday praised Chavez for his work on behalf of his people and extended condolences to the Chavez family.
“We came to know a man who expressed a vision to bring profound changes to his country to benefit especially those people who had felt neglected and marginalized. Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez’s commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen,” Mr. Carter said in a statement.
However, Chavez’s Castro-like speeches condemning “U.S. imperialism” garnered the most attention in the English-language media, and conservatives regarded him as a virulently anti-American dictator.
“Hugo Chavez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear. His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator,” said Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Chavez’s antipathy toward the United States appeared to reach its high point in September 2006, when he addressed the U.N. General Assembly and called President Bush “the devil” bent on preserving “domination, exploitation and pillage of the peoples of the world.”
What most observers missed was the effectiveness with which such histrionics served to boost Chavez’s popularity in Venezuela, where he spent years crafting a careful narrative in which he existed as the hero, standing up to a mythical bully in the neighborhood.
During Venezuela’s 2006 election campaign, mountains ringing the capital city of Caracas were saturated with political signs that read: “Vote Against The Devil. Vote Against Imperialism. Vote for Chavez.”
Chavez was a master of tapping into the subculture of his supporters in vast low-income neighborhoods peppering those mountains. For years, he maintained a personal troupe of hip-hop performers, whose songs filled the air for hours at pro-Chavez rallies.
Chavez, surrounded by scantily clad women dancing to the beat, eventually would appear atop a tall flatbed truck working its way slowly through the beer-soaked crowds. A favorite pastime at such rallies — and one that likely will play out as his supporters mourn — involved a street theater rendition of a Venezuelan folk tale known as “Florentino and the Devil.”
The story follows Florentino, a young man who challenges the devil to a nighttime duel of singing. In the end, Florentino wins by singing until dawn because the devil has to flee the sunlight.