By Mariano Castillo and Osmary Hernandez
CARACAS, Venezuela (CNN) — Hugo Chavez, the polarizing president of Venezuela who cast himself as a “21st century socialist” and foe of the United States, died Tuesday, said Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
Chavez, who had long battled cancer, was 58.
Chavez’s democratic ascent to the presidency in 1999 ushered in a new era in Venezuelan politics and its international relations.
Once a foiled coup-plotter, the swashbuckling former paratrooper was known for lengthy speeches on everything from the evils of capitalism to the proper way to conserve water while showering. He was the first of a wave of leftist presidents to come to power in Latin America in the last dozen years.
As the most vocal U.S. adversary in the region, he influenced other leaders to take a similar stance.
But the last months of Chavez’ life were marked by an uncharacteristic silence as his health condition became “complicated,” in the words of his government. Chavez underwent a fourth surgery on December 11 in Cuba, and was not publicly seen again. A handful of pictures released in February were the last images the public had of their president.
Chavez’s ministers stubbornly maintained a hopeful message throughout the final weeks, even while admitting that the recently re-elected president was weakened while battling a respiratory infection.
Chavez launched an ambitious plan to remake Venezuela, a major oil producer, into a socialist state in the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, which took its name from Chavez’s idol, Simon Bolivar, who won independence for many South American countries in the early 1800s.
“After many readings, debates, discussions, travels around the world, etcetera, I am convinced — and I believe this conviction will be for the rest of my life — that the path to a new, better and possible world is not capitalism. The path is socialism,” he said on his weekly television program in 2005.
Chavez redirected much of the country’s vast oil wealth, which increased dramatically during his tenure, to massive social programs for the country’s poor. He expanded the portfolio of the state-owned oil monopoly to include funding for social “missions” worth millions of dollars. That helped pay for programs that seek to eradicate illiteracy, provide affordable food staples and grant access to higher education, among other things.
But Chavez also leaves a legacy of repression against politicians and private media who opposed him.
He concentrated power in the executive branch, turning formerly independent institutions — such as the judiciary, the electoral authorities and the military — into partisan loyalists.
Through decrees and a judiciary tilted in the president’s favor, many political opponents found themselves barred from running in elections against the ruling party. Even former allies, like Chavez’s onetime defense minister, Gen. Raul Baduel, faced accusations that critics called trumped-up corruption charges.
Chavez’s government similarly targeted opposition broadcasters, passing laws and decrees that forced at least one major broadcaster and dozens of smaller radio and television stations off the air.
Opponents also have criticized his social programs, calling them unsustainable over the long run and responsible for unintended consequences. Price controls, for instance, drove up inflation, while expropriations of farmland depressed production.
In lengthy, freewheeling speeches, Chavez saved his most acerbic barbs for the “imperialist” United States and its “colonial” allies in the region.
He accused the United States of trying to orchestrate his overthrow, and referred to President George W. Bush as the devil in front of the United Nations General Assembly.
At home, business interests accused him of scaring off investment by abusing the power of expropriation. Venezuela struggled to grow its economy during this period, even as the nation was flush with money from oil, which was at about $17 a barrel when Chavez took office and rose to more than $100 a barrel.
In addition to domestic social programs, the Chavez government pumped money into his foreign policy interests. He invested millions of dollars in oil and cash in countries that were ideologically similar.
Chavez considered former Cuban leader Fidel Castro a mentor, and aligned his country with Iran and other nations opposed to the United States.
Cuba loses a benefactor in Chavez, whose provision of an oil lifeline at below-market prices could be at risk under a new government.
While Chavez admired Castro, he found most inspiration from Bolivar, even renaming the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
An affable, if sometimes bombastic, man, Chavez had a disarming manner that even his critics could not deny.
Some called his style buffoonish, but he spoke like an ordinary Venezuelan — not like a bureaucrat — and voters reacted positively.
Other leftist leaders elected after him, like Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, followed Chavez’s example to varying extents.
Chavez could also be secretive. He was slow to publicly admit that he had cancer, and never shared what type of cancer affected him. The government kept a tight seal on details of the president’s treatment and declining health.
The death of the Venezuelan president leaves a sharply polarized country, with no clear successor for his party and an untested opposition. Chavez’ passing means new elections will be held, although he had said previously he wanted Maduro to succeed him.
Chavez was born in the plains state of Barinas, in southwest Venezuela, on July 28, 1954, the third of the seven children of two educators.
As a child, he was an altar boy who went on to develop a great love of baseball. Recently, even as questions arose about his health, the media-savvy Chavez sought to reassure the public by playing catch with his foreign minister on state television.
As a young man, he enrolled in the Military Academy of Venezuela, reaching the rank of sub-lieutenant in 1975. He joined the parachute corps of the army and rose through the ranks to become a lieutenant colonel.
His first political steps came when he founded the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, or MBR-200, in 1982. A decade later, on February 4, 1992, he led a failed military rebellion against then-President Carlos Andres Perez. He also made his first public appearance in front of the television cameras.
“Compatriots, sadly for now the objectives that we proposed were not achieved in the capital city,” he said. “That is to say, we here in Caracas did not succeed in gaining power. You did it very well out there, but now is time to avoid more bloodshed. Now is time to reflect and new situations will come.”
Chavez served two years in prison before then-President Rafael Caldera granted him amnesty.
Chavez went on to form a new political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, which carried him to a presidential election victory in 1998. His fiery campaign speeches blamed the traditional parties for corruption and poverty.
Chavez married twice and divorced twice. He had three children with his first wife, Nancy Colmenarez: Rosa Virginia, Maria Gabriela and Hugo Rafael.
Years later, he married Marisabel Rodriguez, with whom he had a fourth daughter, Rosa Ines. He divorced in 2003; Venezuela has had no first lady since then.
Upon taking office, Chavez made rewriting the constitution one of his first orders of business. A July 2000 referendum affirmed the new constitution, which the government printed as a little blue book that Chavez used regularly as a prop during speeches.
In the following years, the charismatic Chavez rattled off a string of electoral victories that made him seem almost invincible.
He won re-election in 2000, survived a recall election in 2004, and won another six-year term in 2006.
Chavez secured another re-election victory in October, describing his win as “a perfect battle, and totally democratic.” He vowed to “be a better president every day.”
A turning point for Chavez came in April 2002, when a coup briefly removed him from office.
But the interim government couldn’t consolidate power, and within 48 hours, with the help of the military, Chavez returned to power.
While short-lived, the coup had a profound effect on Chavez, who took a more accelerated authoritarian and leftist turn afterward.
Human Rights Watch wrote in 2010 that the coup provided a pretext for policies that undercut human rights.
“Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chavez presidency,” the report concluded.
“At times, the president himself has openly endorsed acts of discrimination. More generally, he has encouraged his subordinates to engage in discrimination by routinely denouncing his critics as anti-democratic conspirators and coup-mongers — regardless of whether or not they had any connection to the 2002 coup,” the report said.
Consolidation of power in the presidency — to the detriment of separation of powers — became a theme in Chavez’s policies.
Another challenge to Chavez’s rule followed the coup. From December 2002 to February 2003, a crippling general strike pressured the president. The economy took a hit, but Chavez outlasted the strikers.
The following year, in 2004, the opposition gathered enough signatures to hold a recall referendum on Chavez, but again, the president survived.
Chavez’s vitriol toward the United States also increased in the period after the brief coup because Washington had tacitly approved it.
In one of his most memorable insults, Chavez said of Bush in 2006 before the U.N. General Assembly:
“The devil came here yesterday. And it smells of sulfur still today.”
In 2007, Chavez tasted defeat for the first time, in a referendum seeking approval for constitutional reforms that would have deepened his socialist policies. Nonetheless, thanks to a National Assembly friendly to him, Chavez achieved some of his goals, including indefinite re-election.
That same year, Chavez created a new political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, which merged his party with several other leftist parties.
His detractors accused him of being authoritarian, populist and even dictatorial for having pushed through a constitutional reform that allowed indefinite re-election.
Increasingly, Chavez used legislation to clamp down on broadcasters and other media. His government relentlessly went after opposition broadcaster Globovision, accusing it of a number of violations, from failure to pay taxes to disregarding a media responsibility law.
The broadcaster is the last remaining TV network that carries an anti-Chavez line, since the president refused to renew the license of another opposition station, RCTV, allegedly over telecommunication regulation violations. The station had to go off public airwaves and transmit solely on cable.
Abroad, Chavez was also known for his colorful — if sometimes strange — statements.
Last year, after several Latin American leaders were diagnosed with cancer, himself included, he wondered if the United States was behind it.
“Would it be strange if (the United States) had developed a technology to induce cancer, and for no one to know it?” he asked.
During a water shortage that Venezuela suffered in 2009, he took to the airwaves to encourage Venezuelans to take showers that lasted only three minutes.
At a summit in 2007, his repeated attempts to interrupt resulted in King Juan Carlos of Spain saying to him, “Why don’t you shut up?”
Chavez was a believer that the days of the “Washington consensus,” a model of economic reforms favored by the United States for developing countries, were over.
Along with Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and some Caribbean countries, Chavez formed the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA, a group intended to offer an alternative to U.S. influence in the region.
As president, Chavez made clear his ambitions of being a regional and international leader who left, in his own way, changes that awakened passions and feelings in favor and against — everything except indifference.
CNN’s Mariano Castillo reported from Atlanta and journalist Osmary Hernandez reported from Caracas. CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.
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