(CARACAS, Venezuela) — The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has died, the country’s Vice President Nicolas Maduro said Tuesday.
Venezuelan government officials said Monday that Chavez had developed a severe respiratory infection following cancer surgery, and that his condition was very delicate.
Chavez recently returned to Venezuela after two months of cancer treatment in Cuba and was being cared for in a military hospital.
A self-described champion of the poor who first tried to overturn Venezuela’s powerful elites in a failed 1992 coup, Chavez was democratically elected in 1998, with huge support from the country’s poor.
During his time in office, he became one of Latin America’s most well-known and polarizing figures. A constant thorn in the side of the United States, he commanded headlines in newspapers around the world. A populist who suppressed free speech, he remained immensely popular among his country’s poor.
From the time he took office in 1999, Chavez held onto power through tightly controlling the media and through a series of populist elections and referenda, including one that allowed him to seek a limitless number of terms.
Chavez, whose public appearances diminished in months, received his first surgery and chemotherapy treatment for cancer in Cuba in 2011. He returned to Cuba, a guest of that country’s ailing socialist leader Fidel Castro, for treatment and surgery in February 2012.
Chavez announced on Dec. 8 on state television that he would travel back to Cuba to undergo surgery since his pelvic cancer had “returned.”
Despite his ailing health, Chavez was reelected last year.
The details of Chavez’s medical status have long been controversial. For months rumors swirled about the ailing president’s health, but the government would only recently reveal information about Chavez’s condition following his fourth cancer-related surgery in 19 months. Over the weekend, Vice President Maduro, who has led the government in Chavez’s absence, said the president was still undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
While most of his countrymen believed the socialist leader would eventually return to power (six in 10, according to polling company Datanalisis), some (almost three percent) thought in recent months that Chavez was already dead, with protesters calling for the full details of his condition. Chavez hadn’t been seen in public since last December.
Born into a working class family, Hugo Chavez cut his own path in life. He became a career military officer and later, dissatisfied with a political system he viewed as corrupt and undemocratic, he entered politics.
Over the years of his presidency, Chavez introduced a new constitution that increased rights for marginalized groups. He also brought in a program for land reform and nationalized various key industries.
Chavez refused to play ball with the U.S., often criticizing American foreign policy and aligning himself with the governments of Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua, as well as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His greatest ire, however, was saved for the United States, particularly former President George W. Bush.
He called Bush a “liar,” “coward,” “murderer” and “donkey.” In a 2006 speech before the UN General Assembly, he called the president “the devil.”
“I think I’m just saying what many people would like to tell him. I said he was a donkey because, I think, he’s very ignorant about what is actually happening in Latin America and the world,” Chavez told ABC’s Barbara Walters in a 2007 interview.
Despite promises that he would clean the country of corruption, his administration was rife with corruption. He and his government were routinely criticized for human rights abuses, particularly restricting freedom of the press.
The country will likely hold general elections soon. The law requires that they take place within 30 days.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Rafael Romo, CNN Newswire
Sugam Pokharel and Tim Hume, CNN