Mr. Chavez first revealed in a brief, dramatic television address in June 2011 that he had undergone two surgical procedures in Cuba. He would go under the knife two more times, greatly weakening the once robust leader. Mr. Chavez had been elected in October 2012 to a third six-year term. But he missed his swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 10 while lying gravely ill in a Havana hospital after undergoing what his aides had called a complex operation a month before.
(PHOTOS: The charismatic and omnipresent life of Hugo Chavez)
The country was plunged into an institutional crisis, with Mr. Chavez’s foes accusing the government of violating the constitution. But Mr. Chavez’s lieutenants managed to buy time until their leader’s pre-dawn return to Venezuela on Feb. 18. He remained at a Caracas military hospital, with his Twitter account bursting out messages such as “Onward toward victory always!! We will live and we will triumph!!”
As an obscure 37-year-old lieutenant colonel, Mr. Chavez had led a failed coup in 1992 against President Carlos Andres Perez’s government. Six years later, on Dec. 6, 1998, Mr. Chavez was elected president in a landslide after pledging to replace a broken, corrupt political system and redistribute the country’s substantial oil-fueled wealth.
Mr. Chavez left Venezuela deeply polarized, his supporters lionizing him as a courageous rebel determined to take on the elites, and his foes painting him as a dangerous demagogue and strongman.
The former army paratrooper promised a revolution and reveled in what he considered a battle to end all vestiges of the power structure then in place in Venezuela, especially its close economic and political ties to the United States.
TIMELINE: The life and rule of Hugo Chavez
Quickly moving to overturn the old order, Mr. Chavez marginalized the traditional power brokers who had held influence in Venezuela, attacked establishment institutions and upended the country’s economy.
Combative in olive green uniform and red beret, Mr. Chavez called his opponents “degenerates” and “squealing pigs,” referred to the Catholic Church hierarchy as “devils in vestments” and labeled critics “counterrevolutionaries.”
“Oligarchs tremble, because now is when the revolution is going forward,” he warned in 2000, after the constitution had been redrawn and a new legislature dominated by his allies had taken over. “This is going to be delicious; we’re going to deliver a knockout punch to the counterrevolution.”
His guiding light was the 19th-century independence liberator Simon Bolivar, whose pronouncements, writings and philosophy found their way into nearly every speech Mr. Chavez gave.