Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died on Tuesday after a two-year battle with cancer, ending 14 years of tumultuous and divisive rule that won him passionate support among the poor but hatred from business leaders and wealthy Venezuelans.
The flamboyant 58-year-old had undergone four operations in Cuba for a cancer that was first detected in his pelvic region in mid-2011. He vanished from public view after December 11 surgery that resulted in complications and respiratory infections.
"It's a moment of deep pain," said Vice President Nicolas Maduro, his voice choking during a live TV address.
"His project, his flags will be raised with honor and dignity. Commander, thank you, thank you so much, on behalf of these people whom you protected."
Venezuela's military chiefs quickly pledged loyalty to Maduro, who will be caretaker president until elections are called within 30 days.
Chavez supporters poured onto the streets, weeping and chanting "Chavez lives!" and "We are Chavez!".
"Don't let anyone try to convince you Chavez has gone ... He will always be with us," said the head of Congress, Diosdado Cabello.
State TV broadcast Chavez's emotional last speech to the nation in December, shops in Caracas closed their doors for fear of looting, and condolences poured in from around the world, including messages from film maker Oliver Stone and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Chavez easily won a new six-year term at an election in October and his death is devastating for millions of supporters who adored his charismatic style, anti-U.S. rhetoric and oil-financed policies that brought subsidized food and free health clinics to long-neglected slums.
Detractors, however, saw his one-man style, gleeful nationalizations and often harsh treatment of opponents as traits of an egotistical dictator whose misplaced statist economics wasted a historic bonanza of oil revenues.
Chavez's corpse will lie in state at a Caracas military academy until a formal funeral ceremony on Friday, and seven days of mourning will be observed, officials said.
MADURO FAVORITE TO WIN ELECTION
Chavez's death opens the way for a new election that will test whether his socialist "revolution" can live on without his dominant personality at the helm.
A new vote will likely pit Maduro against Henrique Capriles, the centrist opposition leader and state governor who lost to Chavez in October. Maduro appealed for calm and respect for democracy.
One recent opinion poll gave Maduro a strong lead because he is Chavez's preferred successor, enjoys support among many if the working class and could benefit from an inevitable surge of emotion in the coming days.
Maduro has been a close ally of Chavez for years and would be very unlikely to make significant changes to the late president's socialist policies, although he could at some point try to ease tensions with investors and the U.S. government.
Just hours before Chavez's death, though, Maduro alleged that "imperialist" conspirators had infected the president with cancer among a plethora of conspiracies with domestic opponents. The government never detailed the type of cancer Chavez had, but experts think it was a soft-tissue sarcoma.
A victory by Capriles would bring in much deeper changes and would be welcomed by business groups and foreign investors, although he would probably move cautiously in order to lower the risk of political instability and violence.
Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves and some of the most heavily traded bonds, so investors will be highly sensitive to any signs of turmoil.
U.S. President Barack Obama said his government was interested in starting a new relationship with Venezuela.
"At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez's passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government," Obama said in a statement.
An opposition win at the election would move Venezuela closer to the United States and upend alliances with Latin American states that have relied on Chavez's oil-funded largesse - most notably with communist-led Cuba, which recovered from financial ruin in the 1990s thanks largely to Venezuelan aid.
Chavez was a garrulous figurehead for a global "anti-imperialist" alliance stretching as far as Belarus and Iran, and will be sorely missed by anti-U.S. agitators.
After the cancer was diagnosed in June 2011, Chavez went through several cycles of disappearing from the public eye for weeks at a time for treatment in Havana, only to return just as his adversaries were predicting his demise.
His health weakened severely just after his re-election on October 7, possibly due to his decision to campaign for a third term instead of stepping aside to focus on his recovery.
Chavez was raised by his grandmother in a house with a mud floor in rural Venezuela and evoked almost religious passion among poor supporters who loved his folksy charm, common touch and determination to put the country's oil wealth at their service.
He burst onto the national scene by leading an attempted coup in 1992. It failed and he was imprisoned, but he then formed a political party on his release two years later and swept to power in a 1998 election.
It was the first of four presidential election victories, built on widespread support among the poor.
But Chavez alienated investors with waves of takeovers and strict currency controls, often bullied his rivals, and disappointed some followers who say he focused too much on ideological issues at the expense of day-to-day problems such power cuts, high inflation and crime.
Chavez built a highly centralized political system around his larger-than-life image and his tireless, micro-managing style created something close to a personality cult. He was particularly adept at exploiting divisions within a fractious opposition.
Chavez was briefly toppled in a coup in 2002, but returned triumphantly after his supporters took to the streets.
Apparently realizing the end was nigh, Chavez named Maduro his successor in December, just before his fourth operation, which followed months of grueling chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
On February 18, Chavez made a surprise pre-dawn return from Cuba and was taken to a ninth-floor suite of a military hospital in Caracas, surrounded by tight security.
The government published a handful of pictures of Chavez lying in a hospital bed while he was still in Havana - the only time he was seen since the latest surgery. Supporters held tearful vigils around the country to pray for his recovery.
Maduro, 50, will now focus on marshalling support from Chavez's diverse coalition, which includes leftist ideologues, businessmen, and radical armed groups called "colectivos".
Seeking to knock down rumors of tensions at the top of the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV), Maduro has stressed the unity between him and Cabello, a powerful former army buddy of Chavez who heads the National Assembly.
Maduro is a former bus driver who rose from union activist to foreign minister and then to president-in-waiting. He won Chavez's confidence by meticulously echoing his vitriolic rhetoric and never airing a dissenting opinion.
Maduro has mimicked Chavez's rabble-rousing style in appearances in recent weeks, peppering speeches with insults aimed at adversaries.
Capriles, Maduro's likely opponent, is a 40-year-old governor of Miranda state who led a hard-fought campaign against Chavez in the October election.
There are clear ideological differences between the 20 or so groups in the opposition's Democratic Unity coalition and without their enmity to Chavez to bind them, the alliance could splinter.
Until recently, polls had shown Capriles would beat any of Chavez's proteges. But the naming of Maduro as Chavez's heir, and the outpouring of emotion that will accompany Chavez's death, have changed the picture.
A survey carried out by local pollster Hinterlaces between January 30 and February 9 gave Maduro 50-percent support, compared to 36 percent for Capriles.(Reuters)
Prof Wickramatillake Wednesday, 06 March 2013 08:17 AM
Eliyantha could not save him. May he RIP
MountainLion Wednesday, 06 March 2013 04:01 AM
Prof Wickramatillake Wednesday, 06 March 2013 08:18 AM
piumi Wednesday, 06 March 2013 04:02 AM
Sadham Hussain, Gadafi, Chaves.........Who is next ?????
MountainLion Wednesday, 06 March 2013 04:04 AM
Venezuela is a oil rich country. Still there is a lot of poverty and many live in slums. A country that was badly governed and managed.
Jasper Thursday, 07 March 2013 05:35 AM
RIP Hugo Chavez. You might not be the apple of the eye amongst the US and other European countries you stood against. But, I admire your bravery and courage for standing up against them. My thoughts and prayers are with the family, Venezuela and her people.
singing fish Wednesday, 06 March 2013 08:20 AM
May god bless him, a great politician who uplifted the life of downtrodden masses in VENEZUELA.
Fusion Wednesday, 06 March 2013 04:09 AM
RIP! One strong anti-american voice is no more. I would not be surprised if the US makes her move and loot Venezuela of all the oil fields (believed to be the largest in world, even bigger than KSA).
Eagle Eyes Wednesday, 06 March 2013 10:35 AM
May his soul rest in peace.
Luvis Fernando Wednesday, 06 March 2013 04:14 AM
Today, world has lost a great leader. I would like to quote following from CNN. Actor Sean Penn "Venezuela and its revolution will endure under the proven leadership of Vice President (Nicolas) Maduro. Today the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion. I lost a friend I was blessed to have. My thoughts are with the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela."
Jay Wednesday, 06 March 2013 04:22 AM
our president lost another good friend
Podi Banda Wednesday, 06 March 2013 04:30 AM
You were a great leader. Tried hard to free true owners of your land from European colonizers RIP..
Arjuna K.Ranawana Wednesday, 06 March 2013 06:16 AM
Now our Hon. Minister Wimal can go for attend Funeral
IOSirisena Wednesday, 06 March 2013 06:19 AM
another frog in the well comments.
weha Wednesday, 06 March 2013 04:38 AM
He too was a boru show men. anyway RIP. Life is short.
malkanthi Wednesday, 06 March 2013 04:41 AM
Apart from them, the dictators can easily be identified as "an enemy of freedom, an opponent of law" same fate will be upon them all.
malkanthi Wednesday, 06 March 2013 06:38 AM
These oil countries do not bend because of oil power, wait and see till manner project is completed.
malkanthi Wednesday, 06 March 2013 06:39 AM
There is nothing for them to be happy until they tap the resources.
Muthu Wednesday, 06 March 2013 04:59 AM
Another friend lost.
god Wednesday, 06 March 2013 12:00 AM
americans slow poisoned chavez..trust me after ten years fron now this will be the fact mark my words. via DM Android App
Zaid Wednesday, 06 March 2013 12:00 AM
Rest in peace via DM Android App
Dan Wednesday, 06 March 2013 07:01 AM
You never get it bullie...we have great leader who won the country for after 600 yrs
Antharjala Veeraya Wednesday, 06 March 2013 03:11 AM
We have only Ahmedinejad left.
Gaddafi, Saddam, Fidel, Nasheed all are gone.
Oh not to forget we still have that guy with no shirt. That makes only 2 friends for us.
ind Wednesday, 06 March 2013 05:09 AM
A brave person who stand against imperialism of US. Rest in peace !!!!
ANTON Wednesday, 06 March 2013 05:12 AM
USA WILL BE HAPPY
Percy Hinganarathna Wednesday, 06 March 2013 07:05 AM
Have u ever met anyone from Caracas.
RAJU Wednesday, 06 March 2013 11:20 AM
RED SALUTE FOR A GREAT REVOLUTIONARY LEADER, REST IN PEACE.
Percy Hinganarathna Wednesday, 06 March 2013 07:06 AM
another regime booklicker dont know sitting or standing.
Percy Hinganarathna Wednesday, 06 March 2013 07:07 AM
i hope soon. the sooner the better.
Fayad Wednesday, 06 March 2013 05:16 AM
A true leader he did his duty to his countrymen..
nicky karunarathna Wednesday, 06 March 2013 05:17 AM
The guy taller than his life,wholesome human being in its all respect, is of course lost to the world of innocence, kindness and but in all in all - truth and honesty a man can give it to this world of amidst leaders of cruel and dishonest. He in fact call spade a spade in UN assembly, calling then president Bush the devil. US is in reality devil's country ruling the devils by devils one after the other coming from differnt colours lately.
RamUk Wednesday, 06 March 2013 07:22 AM
but his ppl are very poor in a oil rich country. corruption and mismanagement by the leader to cover that he played the anti west card ...seems familiar?
jacky Wednesday, 06 March 2013 03:23 AM
the world loose a very important man. May his soul rest in peace
PRASANNAJIT Wednesday, 06 March 2013 05:19 AM
Another dictator bites the dust.
PRASANNAJIT Wednesday, 06 March 2013 07:26 AM
Somebody from Srilanka was offering the services of his personal physician to cure the cancer of Chavez. What happened?
Sujeewa Wednesday, 06 March 2013 09:35 AM
Chinese owns it
firefox Wednesday, 06 March 2013 05:28 AM
beginning of a better era for the Venezuelans! when will that be for us in Sri Lanka????
lankalion Wednesday, 06 March 2013 10:10 AM
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