Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced the leader's death late on Tuesday afternoon shortly after news of an additional "severe" respiratory infection had been publicized. He was 58.
Chávez' death marks the end of a dynamic life. As early as 1992, he made a grab for power in a failed putsch attempt against President Carlos Andrés Pérez. He was pardoned after two years spent behind bars. Thereafter, he sought a political path to power in Venezuela.
In December 1998 elections, Chávez won with a commanding 56 percent of the vote. He embodied a fresh new project, an alternative to the corrupt elite and to the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats who had alternated power for decades.
The project was to completely reshape the country, a Chávez-led reboot. He rewrote the constitution, disempowered the old parliament and replaced it with a new one and concentrated power in his own hands. He handed top political positions to his closest confidants. Perhaps most importantly, he secured control over the country's most valuable treasure: oil. With Venezuela being one of the world's largest producers of crude, oil income was to be a significant element of Chávez' power and he didn't shy away from nationalizing parts of the industry.
Despite his illness and a growing opposition movement, Chávez managed to win the election last fall. But even then, it was clear that he was losing his grip.
His popularity had dwindled as a result. Whereas the country's middle-class had thrown its support behind Chávez in 1998 after he had cleaned out the corruption and greed of his predecessors, they had begun recently to turn their backs. Only the country's lower classes continued to support him. He had, after all, been the first Venezuelan president ever to pay them much attention, establishing generous social programs and creating 34 so-called "missions," aid and education programs funded with billions of dollars.
The missions ultimately became the backbone of his government; since 1999, Chávez has pumped fully €300 billion into the system. According to state statistics, he was able to reduce the number of poverty-stricken citizens from half the population to less than a third during his rule.
That, surely, will become part of his historical legacy.
He also infused leftists across Latin America wth a new self-confidence, paving the way for Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador to win elections. Indeed, Chávez has long had an influence far beyond the borders of his own country. Since coming into office in February of 1999, no Latin American leader has changed the continent's political landscape to a greater degree than he has.
With an almost messianic enthusiasm, he sought alliances with like-minded leaders elsewhere in the world and was happy to grant economic assistance in exchange for political friendship. The axis of this cooperation was ultimately formed by Belarus, Russia, Iran and China.
His critics in Venezuela and abroad regarded him as either sick or as an egomaniac, a cold politician hungry for power who pursued a clear political program: to implement his Bolivarian Revolution not just in Venezuela but to carry it to the rest of Latin America.
There's no doubt that Chávez felt called upon to carry on the work of the great liberator Simon Bolívar who from 1813 first beat the Spanish and then freed today's Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador from colonial rule. As Chávez saw it, the US and the opposition in his own country were modern colonial masters who had to be vanquished. In his deeply ideological claim to gain complete control of his country, he became the epitome of the charismatic ruler.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: AFP: Hugo Chavéz