Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez dies

| Mar. 6, 2013 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by USA Today

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the socialist leader who assailed U.S. influence in Latin America in his campaign against capitalism and democratic freedoms, died Tuesday. He was 58.

Chávez succumbed to cancer after months of treatments in Cuba, whose communist leaders he admired and propped up with cheap Venezuelan oil.

In power for 14 years, Chávez used oil money and vitriol to spread his "Bolivarian revolution" to neighboring states, playing a role in bolstering leftward turns in Ecuador and Bolivia and backing revolutionaries in Colombia. He hectored the United States often, belittling its leaders and cozying up to its adversaries.

In Venezuela, Chávez was a hero to impoverished villagers who had never shared in the country's oil wealth and benefited from housing improvements and health clinics. Detractors saw him as a dictator, packing the oil industry with incompetent cronies, repressing political opponents and ruining Venezuela's attempts to modernize and democratize.

Chávez dismantled Venezuela's democratic political system, rewrote the country's constitution in his favor, clamped down on freedom of expression and tried to spread his version of socialism throughout the continent. Some scholars said his claim to be working for the poor rang hollow.

"He deserves credit for putting his finger on a legitimate grievance in Venezuela about social exclusion and injustice," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. However, "Chávez will be remembered as a leader who squandered a rare opportunity to transform his country in a positive way."

Chávez was born to schoolteacher parents in July 1954. As a young man, he entered the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences and joined the army when leftists were pushing for radical alternatives to growing poverty. A decline in oil prices in the 1980s caused a drop in social spending and riots in which hundreds died, and Chávez drifted toward left-wing groups outside the military that supported a violent takeover of the government.

In 1992, Chávez, a lieutenant colonel, attempted a coup with others but failed, and he was jailed until 1994. Upon release, he ran for president and won on a vow to end corruption. Faced with strong political opposition, Chávez used referendums to strengthen his power, such as increasing the seats on the Supreme Court to pack it with his loyalists.

In 2002, military officers pushed Chávez out of office briefly after he ordered a crackdown on political opponents. Thousands of workers at the state oil company, PDVSA, went on strike to protest the crackdown and were fired as Chávez solidified control over the agency and installed supporters.

Chávez won the allegiance of the poor by sending thousands of Cuban-trained doctors into rural areas, but the middle class and others chafed at his state seizure of industries, banks and private farmland and repression of political and media freedoms. Rising oil prices gave him the money to lavish on supporters.

Such moves brought criticism from the United States, but poor Venezuelans kept him in power at election time.

"Chávez is Venezuela, that's the truth. The revolution will always be felt on the streets," said Gloria Torres, 50, who had organized prayer meetings for Chávez as he was undergoing cancer treatments.