Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Dead of Cancer at 58

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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died Tuesday, March 5, after a two-year battle with pelvic cancer. He was being treated at a military hospital in Caracas, following a 10-week treatment stay in Cuba, where he received frequent surgeries and chemotherapy throughout his illness. He was 58.

A tearful Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced the news on Venezuelan national television at 4:25 p.m. Maduro followed the announcement with a plea for peace, saying, “We must unite now more than ever.”

Funeral plans have yet to be announced. Under the Venezuelan Constitution, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, must take over the presidential responsibilities for now, and organize new elections within 30 days. Before he left for Cuba on December 9, Chavez addressed the nation for the last time, hinting that he might be near the end of his life, and endorsing Nicolas Maduro for presidential office should the worst happen. Maduro will most likely run against Henrique Capriles, a state governor and leader of the centrist opposition who ran against Chavez in the most recent elections in October 2012. Current polls give Maduro the lead.

Hugo Chavez was born in Sabenta, Venezuela in 1954, the son of schoolteachers. In the 1980s, after graduating from military academy and achieving success as a paratrooper, he founded an underground socialist group, the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement. In 1992, they led a coup that left 18 people dead and Chavez himself in prison. Two years later, he was pardoned and reentered the political sphere at the head of the Movement of the Fifth Republic, a populist organization. He won the presidential election in 1998, and remained in power for four consecutive terms.

Chavez was known as a fiery, controversial politician who befriended leaders like Fidel Castro and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was an outspoken opponent of U.S. foreign policy. In 2006, Chavez called President George W. Bush “the devil” in front of the UN General Assembly, and in 2007, he told Barbara Walters that Bush was “very ignorant about what is actually happening in Latin America and the world.”

As a politician, Chavez was most widely known for nationalizing Venezuelan oil commerce and using the proceeds to improve the lives of the very poor in his country, as well as support the economic recovery of his allies, like Cuba. The Venezuelan lower classes benefitted from the establishment of open universities and the creation of new government jobs; they also enjoyed programs to increase literacy rates and provide medical care to the slums.

Chavez’s socialist policies angered his political enemies even as they won him the loyalty of his people. His administration persisted for 14 years, despite a 2002 coup that briefly removed him from office and saw his followers hit the streets in support; a two-month nationwide worker’s strike in December 2002 and January 2003; and a recall election in 2004.

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