President Hugo Chavez, the fiery populist who declared a socialist revolution in Venezuela, crusaded against US influence and championed a leftist revival across Latin America, has died after a nearly two-year bout with cancer.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, surrounded by other government officials, announced the death on Tuesday in a national television broadcast.
Chavez had been arguably Latin America’s most controversial leader. He often used his weekly radio show, “Alo, Presidente” (Hello, Mr President), not only to discuss political ideas and interview guests but also to dance, sing and rail against the United States.
The verbal grenades against Washington were not only lobbed from the airwaves. Chavez attacked the US whenever and wherever he deemed fit.
Addressing a UN General Assembly in New York in 2006, he said he could still “smell sulphur” left behind by the “devil” George W Bush, the former US president, who had addressed the assembly 24 hours before.
Chavez, who died aged 58, delivered his 15-minute address while brandishing a book by US academic Noam Chomsky entitled “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance”.
“This is another abuse and another abuse of power on the part of the devil. It smells of sulphur here, but God is with us and I embrace you all,” he said.
Chavez nearly always accused the US of double standards on terrorism, saying Washington was also backing coups, including one in 2002 that saw Chavez removed from office for days.
He also accused Washington of “protecting terrorists” and of “fighting terror using terror” during the war in Afghanistan after 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon.
In keeping with the adage that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, Chavez – a former paratrooper who first shot to prominence as a leader of an abortive coup in 1992 – often befriended countries that had a history of frosty and troubled relations with Washington, such as Cuba and Libya.
As his losing battle with cancer ground on, Chavez said Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former president and in whose country he had surgery and chemotherapy for the illness, was one of his “doctors”.
He denounced NATO’s intervention in the uprising that led to the downfall and death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, long on the list of Washington’s alleged sponsors of international terrorism until 2006.
He described Gaddafi, who had been an international pariah for decades over his country’s role in the bombing of the Pan Am airliner in Scotland in 1988, as “a great fighter, a revolutionary and martyr”.
‘Pact with Jesus’
Chavez was hugely popular, especially among impoverished Venezuelans, and won a series of elections and referendums, including one in 2009 on amending the constitution to remove term limits.
The clause abolishing term limits had been sponsored by Chavez himself and the first attempt to have it removed was in a 2007 referendum, which was won by the opposition. Chavez denounced their victory and organised another successful referendum.
Although he was revered among his supporters, who often praised him for taking care of their interests in ways that other Venezuelan political leaders could not, his critics and detractors said he had become increasingly autocratic.
Last year Chavez was diagnosed with cancer and travelled a couple of times to Cuba for surgery and chemotherapy.
Despite announcing in May that that his doctors had declared his body free of cancer, paving the way for him to seek re-election, Chavez went back to Cuba for another round of surgery.