Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president whose leadership divided his country and rankled the United States, died Tuesday at age 58 after a long battle with cancer.
Chavez, who won reelection in October, saw his health deteriorate in recent weeks, shuffling between hospitals in Havana and Caracas. Reports earlier Tuesday cited a particularly bad turn in his condition, and his vice president, Nicolás Maduro, announced Chavez’s death in the afternoon.
After 14 years of strong-handed Chavez in power, Venezuela could find itself embroiled in a struggle at the top. According to The New York Times, the country’s constitution requires an election within 30 days, which will likely see Maduro pitted against Henrique Capriles, who ran against Chavez in the fall.
News organization already have plenty of obituaries for Chavez, including the NYT, CNN and CBS News. The Miami Herald also has a timeline of his life, including his involvement in a coup attempt in the early 1990s, as well as a short-lived one against him in April 2002.
In Venezuela, Chavez’s legacy will be marked by the deep divisions he culled among his constituents. The former military officer garnered strong support among the poor and working class, who backed his efforts in his “Bolivarian Revolution” to socialize the country. His opponents cited rising crime rates and fears of a movement toward a one-party system.
In the U.S., it’s unlikely many will remember him with high esteem (although one congressman had kind words). Chavez bristled against U.S. involvement in Latin America and befriended Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He also once referred to former President George W. Bush as “the devil” in a speech at the U.N.
President Obama released the following statement regarding Chavez’s death, via Reuters:
“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. As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.”
So what’s next for Venezuela, one of the leading countries in oil reserves? That depends on who takes control and who wins in the upcoming election. Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, is likely favored to beat Capriles. That would mean a continuation of “chavismo” and the government’s policies, even if there isn’t as charismatic of a leader as Chavez.
If Capriles, or whomever the opposition backs, wins, then Venezuela would likely see some push to market-oriented policies and friendlier relations with the U.S.
Of course, this is also a country that has seen a coup attempt this century, so things might get a bit unpredictable.