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Last updated: March 6, 2013 8:37 am
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez died on Tuesday after suffering complications from cancer surgery, putting an end to the anti-capitalist leader’s controversial 14-year rule.
Chávez’s death, announced by Nicolás Maduro, the vice-president, came almost two years after he was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011. He had declared himself cured twice, was operated on four times and also underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Mr Maduro said the 58-year-old leader had died at 4.25pm on Tuesday afternoon. “We must unite now more than ever,” said Mr Maduro in a breaking voice, surrounded by Chávez’s closest aides at the Caracas military hospital where he had been treated. “Let there be no violence, no hate,” added the vice-president, who called for “love, peace, unity, discipline”.
The government declared seven days of mourning and closed all schools and universities until Monday.
Chávez, who frequently railed against the American “empire” and nationalised large swaths of the economy, won a landslide re-election victory last October after using the country’s oil revenues to cut poverty by half over the past decade.
Venezuela’s constitution requires that fresh elections now be held within 30 days. Analysts say this could present logistical challenges for the electoral authority but that a new poll could take place some time between April and July. Mr Maduro will serve as the interim president.
US President Barack Obama expressed US support for Venezuela and said it remained interested “in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government”. Caracas on Tuesday expelled two US diplomats, with Mr Maduro saying hours before Chávez died that the leader’s cancer was induced “by the historical enemies of our homeland”.
William Hague, UK foreign secretary, said he was “saddened to learn of the death of President Hugo Chávez today”. He added: “As president of Venezuela for 14 years he has left a lasting impression on the country and more widely. I would like to offer my condolences to his family and to the Venezuelan people at this time.”
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, addressing a rural workers congress, called for a minute’s silence over the “irreparable loss of a friend of the Brazilian people”.
“His passing should fill all Latin and Central Americans with sorrow,” she told the gathering. “He was a leader committed to the development of the peoples of Latin America.”
She added, however, that “on many occasions, the government of Brazil did not completely agree with President Hugo Chávez”, without elaborating.
The charismatic leader, who was last seen in public on his arrival in Cuba on December 10, had urged his followers before departing for his operation in Havana to support Mr Maduro in the event that he should be forced to leave the presidency. He had not been seen in public since then, despite returning to Caracas on February 18.
Mr Maduro had been running the country since Chávez left for his cancer operation in Cuba and many believe that he has in effect already begun his presidential campaign, with greatly increased media exposure and frequent attacks against the opposition.
The former trade unionist is expected to face Henrique Capriles, who lost by more than 10 percentage points in presidential elections on October 7 after Chávez claimed to be “totally free” of cancer.
After members of Chávez’s United Socialist party secured a sweeping victory in gubernatorial elections on December 16, proving that “Chavismo without Chávez” is a political force to be reckoned with, pollsters say Mr Maduro would probably win against Mr Capriles.
If the movement struggles to maintain unity following Chávez’s death, however, the chances of the opposition candidate would be increased.
Chávez burst on to the national stage with a failed coup in 1992, and after a two-year stint in prison went on to win presidential elections in 1998, marking the start of a tide of leftwing governments sweeping to power in Latin America.
In the days and weeks before Chávez’s death, Venezuela’s government was vague about the precise condition of his health, although official bulletins on his health became increasingly pessimistic.
“Hugo Chávez’s death is a game changer in Venezuela and will inevitably imply a reorganisation of the political order,” said IHS Latin America analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos. “It creates a power vacuum that will be hard to fill and a political crisis could take place should Maduro fail to guarantee continuity for the Chavismo movement.”
Defence minister Admiral Diego Molero, surrounded by the military high command, issued a statement on state television pledging to guarantee peace, while workers at the state channel VTV chanted live on television that “Chávez lives, the battle continues”.
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