Supporters mourn Chávez as country’s great leader

Government of Venezuela photo
Hugo Chávez

Venezuelan officials say President Hugo Chávez has died after a long struggle with cancer. Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced the death on national television Tuesday. He urged the Venezuelan people to show strength and courage, and to be united and fulfill the expectations of “this great leader.”

The 58-year-old Chávez had been treated in Cuba for cancer before returning to Caracas last month. Officials say he came down with a severe infection after strong chemotherapy in a Caracas military hospital.

​​Chávez had cancer in his pelvis. He has not been seen in public since December and missed his inauguration for another term in January.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, sent his condolences to the Venezuelan people, calling this a time of great sorrow. The OAS will hold a special meeting in memory of President Chávez.

Vice President Maduro Tuesday accused Venezuela’s enemies of attacking the president with cancer. He did not say how that could have been done.

Also Tuesday, Venezuela expelled two U.S. diplomats, accusing them of meeting with military officers and plotting to destabilize the government.

The two diplomats are air attaches, U.S. Air Force officers who are stationed in the embassy.

A statement from the U.S. State Department rejected the Venezuelan claim about the diplomats and calls accusations that the United States was involved in causing Chávez’s cancer absurd.

Chávez once dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player, but instead he entered the world of politics. During his lifetime, the controversial president courted figures such as Fidel Castro of Cuba, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and then-Libyan leader Moammar Gadhadi.

As an army paratrooper in 1992, Chávez led an unsuccessful coup against then-president Carlos Andrés Pérez, and he spent time in jail for plotting the failed coup. Chávez’s political fortunes later changed. He was elected president of oil-rich Venezuela in 1998, running on a populist platform and pledging to wipe out poverty and corruption.

He considered himself a revolutionary and said he was inspired by his political mentor, Fidel Castro, who held power for close to 50 years in Cuba. Critics often accused Chávez of steering Venezuela toward a Cuban-style one-party dictatorship.

Political analyst Luis Vicente León says Venezuela became undemocratic under the president’s growing authoritarian rule.

“We rediscovered the needs of the poor classes, we rediscovered that it was necessary to tend to their problems,” he said. “What are the negatives? Well, I think the most important of all is that Venezuela’s democracy nowadays is quite a poor democracy.”

Chávez was a fierce critic of the United States, which he often referred to as “the empire,” and he accused the U.S. of supporting coup attempts against him, charges Washington denied. Back in 2006, he famously referred to then-U.S. president George W. Bush as the Devil during a speech before the United Nations General Assembly.

“Yesterday the devil was here at this very spot. This podium where it is now my turn to speak still smells of sulfur,” Chávez said.

​​As president, Chávez nationalized major companies across a range of industries from oil, steel and cement, to electricity and telecommunications. He also directed funds from the country’s oil wealth to social programs for the needy. Additionally, he used electoral victories to extend the presidential term to six years and remove term limits.

Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says the president’s leftist policies hurt long-term economic development and contributed to rising crime. But he says Chávez will be remembered as a champion of the people who used his country’s vast oil wealth to provide the poor with free housing and health care.

“There is nobody around who has the charisma and the ability to connect to Venezuelans the way Chávez did. Chávez as a figure and the memory of Chávez won’t disappear. That will help sustain the movement,” Shifter said.

Chávez also earned the ire of critics by cracking down on the opposition media. The human rights body of the Organization of American States voiced concern about the use of the punitive power of the state to silence opponents in Venezuela.

In 2008, Venezuela and Ecuador broke diplomatic relations with Bogota after Colombian troops raided a Colombian rebel camp in Ecuador, killing a rebel commander and several other people.

Ties between Venezuela and Colombia soured over accusations that Venezuela harbors rebels. Venezuela denied financing and supporting the rebels. Chávez, however, helped win the release of some Colombians held hostage.

In June 2011, Chávez was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently underwent surgeries in Cuba to remove tumors from his pelvic area. He then underwent chemotherapy both in Cuba and Venezuela for the disease. The president did not disclose what kind of cancer was being treated, but insisted he would be ready to run for re-election in October 2012. Chávez won a fourth term, but underwent a fourth cancer operation in Cuba in December. He was not seen in public after that, although a photograph of him with two daughters was released in the weeks prior to his death.

Chávez was to have been sworn in this past January, but the event did not occur because he was not well enough for the occasion.

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