BY Jim Wyss, jwyss@MiamiHerald.com
CARACAS — Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez survived four elections, a coup and a recall attempt as he became one of Latin America’s most charismatic, influential and controversial leaders. But on Tuesday, the socialist firebrand lost his long-running battle with cancer. He was 58.
The former tank commander died in Venezuela’s Military Hospital, just a few months after winning a fourth presidential term that would have kept him in office until 2019. His passing puts Vice President Nicolás Maduro at the helm of Latin America’s fifth-largest economy until new elections can be scheduled within 30 days. It also leaves a power vacuum in this nation of 27 million – where Chávez had been the face and force of his administration since 1999.
Chávez had been fighting an undisclosed form of cancer since at least June 2011, and had undergone four rounds of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. His last round of treatment began Dec. 10, when he was hustled onto an airplane bound for Cuba. It was the last time he would be seen in public or heard from. The surgery was plagued with problems and led to a respiratory infection, which required a tracheotomy that made it difficult for the once-verbose leader to speak.
Using the nation’s vast oil wealth to push through socialist reforms and build a collation of like-minded leaders in Latin America, Chávez became a darling of the global left and beloved by many of the nation’s poorest. As he built homes, hospitals and schools, his “21st Century Socialism” dramatically reduced the income gap.
But as his power grew, so did the abuses. His administration expropriated thousands of acres of land and hundreds of companies, drawing fire from the business class and the traditional ruling elite. Corruption and impunity plagued his administration. Venezuela became one of the most dangerous countries in the hemisphere, beset by power outages and food shortages.
Despite the problems, Chávez’s popularity rarely waned, and he won the Oct. 7 presidential race with 55 percent of the vote and an 11-point margin over his nearest rival.
“Hugo Chávez will be remembered as an extraordinary politician and as a failed leader,” Venezuelan columnist and the nation’s former trade minister, Moisés Naím, told The Miami Herald. “Sadly, his legacy will not reflect any of the positive and lasting transformations that could have been achieved with the political hegemony and financial resources that he enjoyed. The Venezuela he leaves behind is politically polarized, economically weak, and terrifyingly murderous. But mostly it is poorer, more unjust and vastly more corrupt than what it was before Hugo Chávez ruled it.”
Born to teachers in the agricultural heartland of Barinas state, Chávez was the second of six brothers. According to his biographers Alberto Barrera Tyszka and Cristina Marcano, he joined the military academy in 1971. It was there that Chávez was exposed to the writings of Latin American liberator Simón Bolivár and Venezuelan revolutionary Ezequiel Zamora that gave rise to his particular blend of nationalistic socialism that would guide his life and presidency.
A star pupil in the academy, he quickly moved up the ranks to commander in 1991, the same year he was put in charge of a paratrooper battalion in the coastal city of Maracay.