Published by New York Times
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela died Tuesday afternoon after a struggle with cancer, the government announced, leaving behind a bitterly divided nation in the grip of a political crisis that grew more acute as he languished for weeks, silent and out of sight, in hospitals in Havana and Caracas.
Close to tears and his voice cracking, Vice President Nicolás Maduro said he and other officials had gone to the military hospital where Mr. Chávez was being treated, sequestered from the public, when “we received the hardest and most tragic information that we could transmit to our people.”
In short order, police officers and soldiers were highly visible as people ran through the streets, calling loved ones on cellphones, rushing to get home. Caracas, the capital, which had just received news that the government was throwing out two American military attachés it accused of sowing disorder, quickly became an enormous traffic jam. Stores and shopping malls abruptly closed.
As darkness fell, somber crowds congregated in the main square of Caracas and at the military hospital, with men and women crying openly in sadness and fear about what would come next.
In one neighborhood, Chávez supporters set fire to tents and mattresses used by university students who had chained themselves together in protest several days earlier to demand more information about Mr. Chávez’s condition.
“Are you happy now?” the Chávez supporters shouted as they ran through the streets with sticks. “Chávez is dead! You got what you wanted!”
Mr. Chávez’s departure from a country he dominated for 14 years casts into doubt the future of his socialist revolution. It alters the political balance not only in Venezuela, the fourth-largest supplier of foreign oil to the United States, but also in Latin America, where Mr. Chávez led a group of nations intent on reducing American influence in the region.
Mr. Chávez, 58, changed Venezuela in fundamental ways, empowering and energizing millions of poor people who had felt marginalized and excluded. But his rule also widened society’s divisions, and his death is sure to bring vast uncertainty as the nation tries to find its way without its central figure.
“He’s the best president in history,” said Andrés Mejía, 65, a retiree in Cumaná, an eastern city, crying as he gathered with friends in a plaza. “Look at how emotional I am — I’m crying. I cannot accept the president’s death. But the revolution will continue with Maduro.”
The Constitution says that, since Mr. Chávez was at the start of a term, the nation should “proceed to a new election” within 30 days, and Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said in a television interview that Mr. Maduro would take the helm in the meantime. The election is likely to pit Mr. Maduro, whom Mr. Chávez designated as his political successor, against Henrique Capriles Radonski, a young state governor who lost to Mr. Chávez in the presidential election in October.
But in light of Mr. Chávez’s illness, there has been heated debate in recent months over clashing interpretations of the Constitution, and it is impossible to predict how the transition will proceed.
“We, your civilian and military companions, Commander Hugo Chávez, assume your legacy, your challenges, your project, accompanied by and with the support of the people,” Mr. Maduro told the nation.
Only hours earlier, the government seemed to go into a state of heightened alert as Mr. Maduro convened a crisis meeting in Caracas of cabinet ministers, governors loyal to the president and top military commanders.
Taking a page out of Mr. Chávez’s time-tested playbook, Mr. Maduro warned in a lengthy televised speech that the United States was seeking to destabilize the country, and the government expelled the two American military attachés, accusing one of seeking to recruit Venezuelan military personnel to carry out “destabilizing projects.” He called on Venezuelans to unite as he raised the specter of foreign intervention.
During the speech, Mr. Maduro said the government suspected that the president’s enemies had found a way to cause his cancer, a possibility that Mr. Chávez had once raised. Mr. Maduro said scientists should investigate the source of his illness.
Mr. Chávez long accused the United States of trying to undermine or even assassinate him; indeed, the Bush administration gave tacit support for a coup that briefly removed him from power in 2002. He often used Washington as a foil to build support or distract attention from deeply rooted problems at home, like high inflation and soaring crime.
American officials had hoped to improve relations with Venezuela under Mr. Maduro, with informal talks taking place last year. But more recently, the government has appeared to shift into campaign mode, taking sweeping aim at the Venezuelan opposition and playing up the opposition’s real or alleged ties to the United States.
“We completely reject the Venezuelan government’s claim that the United States is involved in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuelan government,” Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman, said after the expulsion of the American attachés. He added, “Notwithstanding the significant differences between our governments, we continue to believe it important to seek a functional and more productive relationship with Venezuela.”
Mr. Chávez’s cancer was diagnosed in June 2011, but throughout his treatment he and his government kept many details about his illness secret. He had three operations in Cuba between June 2011 and February 2012, as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but the cancer kept coming back.
Then on Dec. 8, just two months after winning re-election, Mr. Chávez stunned the nation by announcing in a televised address that he needed yet more surgery. That operation, his fourth, took place in Havana on Dec. 11.
In the aftermath, grim-faced aides described the procedure as complex and said Mr. Chávez’s condition was delicate. They eventually notified the country of complications, first bleeding and then a severe lung infection and difficulty breathing.
After previous operations, Mr. Chávez often appeared on television while recuperating in Havana, posted messages on Twitter or was heard on telephone calls made to television programs on a government station. But after his December operation, he was not seen again in public, and his voice fell silent.
Mr. Chávez’s aides eventually announced that a tube had been inserted in his trachea to help his breathing, and that he had difficulty speaking. It was the ultimate paradox for a man who seemed never at a loss for words, often improvising for hours at a time on television, haranguing, singing, lecturing, reciting poetry and orating.
As the weeks dragged on, tensions rose in Venezuela. Officials in Mr. Chávez’s government strove to project an image of business as usual and deflected inevitable questions about a vacuum at the top. At the same time, the country struggled with an out-of-balance economy, troubled by soaring prices and escalating shortages of basic goods.
The opposition, weakened after defeats in the presidential election in October and elections for governor in December, in which its candidates lost in 20 of 23 states, sought to keep pressure on the government.
Then officials suddenly announced on Feb. 18 that Mr. Chávez had returned to Caracas. He arrived unseen on a predawn flight and was installed in a military hospital, where, aides said, he was continuing treatments.
Over nearly a decade and a half, Mr. Chávez made most major decisions and dominated all aspects of political life. He inspired a fierce, sometimes religious devotion among his supporters and an equally fervent animus among his opponents. As many of his followers say, “With Chávez everything, without Chávez nothing.”
But that leaves his revolution in a precarious spot without its charismatic leader.
“In regimes that are so person-based, the moment that the person on which everything hangs is removed, the entire foundation becomes very weak because there was nothing else supporting this other than this figure,” said Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College.
Mr. Chávez’s death could provide an opportunity for the political opposition, which was never able to defeat him in a head-to-head contest. Mr. Capriles lost to Mr. Chávez by 11 percentage points in October. But he has twice beaten top Chávez lieutenants in running for governor of his state, Miranda, which includes part of Caracas.
And Mr. Maduro is far from having Mr. Chávez’s visceral connection to the masses of Venezuela’s poor. Even so, most analysts believe that Mr. Maduro will have an advantage, and that he will receive a surge of support if the vote occurs soon.
But even if Mr. Maduro prevails, he may have a hard time holding together Mr. Chávez’s movement while fending off resistance from what is likely to be a revived opposition.
Mr. Chávez’s new six-year term began on Jan. 10, with the president incommunicado in Havana. In his absence, the government held a huge rally in the center of Caracas, where thousands of his followers raised their hands to pledge an oath of “absolute loyalty” to their commander and his revolution. Officials promised that Mr. Chávez would have his inauguration later, when he had recovered.
But the hoped-for recovery never came. Now, instead of an inauguration, Mr. Chávez’s followers are left to plan a funeral.
The foreign minister, Mr. Jaua, announced that on Wednesday Mr. Chávez’s body would be taken to the military academy in Caracas and lie in state there.
Mr. Jaua said that the government would hold a ceremony on Friday with visiting heads of state and that officials would announce later where Mr. Chávez would be laid to rest.
Reporting was contributed by María Eugenia Díaz, Girish Gupta and Meridith Kohut from Caracas; María Iguarán from Cumaná, Venezuela; and David E. Sanger and Thom Shanker from Washington.