Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez has died from a respiratory infection in a military hospital in Caracas, the BBC reports. The illness followed on from the president’s two year battle with cancer.
His death brings to an end a 14 year stint in power in which the controversial leader greatly reduced poverty amongst the Venezualan people. Although divisive among certain factions, Chávez enjoyed enormous popular support, and a seven day period of public mourning has been declared following the news.
Chávez had shocked supporters in mid-2011 when he announced that a large tumour that had been detected in his pelvis, which was later operated on by doctors in Cuba. Although Chávez was initially proclaimed cancer-free after the operation, he underwent further sessions of surgery and chemotherapy in early 2012 after lesions were discovered in the area.
Despite appearing frail during his reelection campaign, Chávez was voted back into power with the largest majority of his political career. However, his illness meant he was unable to take the oath of office after being sworn in for the fourth time, triggering questions from the opposition as to his fitness to run the country.
As of February, President Chávez had not appeared in public, and was known to have been suffering from a severe respiratory infection. After suffering complications on March 4th, his death was announced yesterday by an emotional Vice President Nicolás Maduro.
The obituary printed in the Guardian today highlights some of the controversy surrounding the socialist leader:
The debate continued as to whether Chávez could fairly be described as a dictator, but a democrat he most certainly was not. A hero to many, especially among the poor, for his populist social programmes, he assiduously fomented class hatred and used his control of the judiciary to persecute and jail his political opponents, many of whom were forced into exile. [...]
Internationally, Chávez posed as an anti-imperialist and lavished aid on ideological allies. Venezuela would, he claimed, play a vital role in saving the planet from the evils of capitalism. In a notorious speech to the UN general assembly in 2006, he called US president George W Bush “the devil”, claiming the podium still smelled of sulphur. It went down well in some quarters, but economic failure at home and the cosy relations he had enjoyed with dictators such as Robert Mugabe and Muammar Gaddafi would ultimately limit his appeal, even on the international left.
Whilst not universally loved, Chávez undeniably brought great material improvements for the poorest sections of Venezuelan society, in large part through a programme of nationalisation of the country’s oil reserves.
Revenue from the petrochemical industry was used to fund a series of reforms to education and healthcare that substantially improved quality of life and reduced poverty in the country, as CNN reports:
Between 1998 and 2006 the percentage of Venezuelans living below the poverty line fell from 50.4% to 36.3%, according to statistics from the World Bank’s Databank. Infant mortality fell from 20.3 per thousand births when Chavez came to power to 12.9 by 2011, according to the same source.
Education also became more accessible, with the number of children enrolled in secondary education rising from 48% in 1999 to 72% in 2010, according to UNESCO figures.
In addition, Chávez was well known for connecting with the people through his weekly unscripted TV show Aló Presidente, in which he would discuss topical subjects and respond to questions from callers.
Under the Venezuelan constitution, an election for the next president must now be held within 30 days. The competition is likely to be between Henrique Capriles, Chávez’s opponent in the last election, and Nicolás Maduro, former Vice President, and currently acting leader following Chávez’s death.
As The Atlantic writes, with Chávez having designated the latter of the two as his successor in the event that anything should happen to him, it seems highly likely (although not indisputable) that Mr. Maduro will become the next president of Venezuela.
Regardless of which candidate accedes to office, one thing is certain: it will be very difficult to fill the shoes of this iconic, erratic and charismatic leader.