The End of an Icon

Venezuelans react to the death of their larger-than-life president.


CARACAS – Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, known for his strident attacks on capitalism and U.S. imperialism, died this afternoon in a military hospital, losing his two-year fight against cancer.

"Our Comandante Hugo Chávez Frias has died," Vice President Nicolas Maduro said, choking back tears, in a television address carried live.

Maduro, who was surrounded by members of the country’s military command, said that Chávez died accompanied by his daughters, brother, and other family members. He called for calm and peace.

But on the streets of Caracas, Venezuelans reacted with shock and sadness at the news, which followed a day of increasingly bizarre events. Maduro had earlier held a press conference, announcing the expulsion of two U.S. diplomats for seeking to destabilize the government. Maduro also said that the government would launch an investigation to determine if Chávez’s cancer had been caused by enemies of the country.

"I can’t believe that he’s dead," said Corinna Perez, a 30-year-old nurse in Caracas. "What’s going to happen to us now? Chávez was Venezuela."

As news spread, the national phone system in the country collapsed as Venezuelans called their friends and families with the latest chatter. Chávez’s situation had progressively worsened after he returned to Venezuela on Feb. 18 after spending more than two months in Cuba, recovering from his fourth operation for cancer.

Minutes after Chávez’s death was announced, the country’s defense minister, Adm. Diego Molero told the country that the military was behind Maduro, the government, and the Bolivarian revolution.

Venezuela’s state television station broadcast live footage from the military hospital where Chávez died, along with old footage of the president. Beneath the telecast, headlines read, "Chávez lives! The Revolution continues!"

Outside, soldiers lowered the national flag to half mast.

"Chávez delivered a lot of his promises. He was the first president to share the country´s oil wealth with a majority of Venezuela´s people," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C.

Although many here thought that Chávez’s death would be accompanied by rioting or demonstrations, Caracas was quiet this evening as the news sunk in.

Supporters of the president gathered at the military hospital and at Plaza Bolivar in downtown Caracas. Many were crying; others clutched pictures of the president.

"We will continue the struggle!" shouted Alicia Morales, a 46-year-old government employee. "Chávez gave us his life. This is the least we can do."

According to the Venezuelan constitution, power will now shift to the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, who will have to schedule new presidential elections within 30 days.

Maduro, 50, a former bus driver, was chosen by Chávez to be the government candidate if he died or was unable to serve. Before being named as vice president in October, Maduro served as foreign minister and president of the national assembly.

"I’m not a supporter of Chávez but he was a human being, and I am sad he died and suffered like he did," said Josefina Rodriguez, who lives in one of the slums surrounding Caracas. "My neighbors are in shock. I have never seen them crying like this before."

"Chávez leaves a mixed legacy," said Venezuela analyst Risa Grais-Targow of Eurasia Group. "Yes, he brought in the poor, who were formerly excluded, into the country´s political process — but in that he was only partially successful…. He leaves a country with significant problems, including high crime, goods shortages, high inflation, and frequent power outages, to name a few."

Chávez was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011. Chávez, 58, never said what kind of cancer he had.  Rejecting the advice of many, Chávez went to Cuba for treatment where news about his health was closely guarded. He subsequently underwent four operations, as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatments. During last year’s presidential campaign, he repeatedly claimed to be free of cancer.

"I am sure there are many happy Venezuelans tonight," Lupe Alvarez, a 42-year-old worker in Chávez’s United Socialist Party, said bitterly. "They couldn’t beat him at the polls. This was the only way they could win. I am sure they will try to do something once Chávez is buried."

Maduro said that details about Chávez’s burial would be released within hours.

Peter Wilson, a freelance journalist who recently left Venezuela after 24 years, is writing a book about Hugo Chávez and his failed socialist revolution.