CARACAS, Venezuela — The death of President Hugo Chavez on Tuesday after a long fight against cancer led to an outpouring of grief from the poor masses as the country braced for an expected election to determine the future of the socialist system he established in the oil-rich nation.
In a brief, somber announcement televised nationally, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, crying while he spoke, said he had “hard and tragic” information — that Chavez had died at 4:25 p.m. The 58-year-old leader had ruled Venezuela for 14 years, becoming a savior to millions but seen as a despot by opponents.
The government did not say what caused Chavez’s death, having never revealed what kind of cancer he had been battling since it was detected in June 2011. But the president had been suffering from a severe infection and serious respiratory problems, Maduro had said in an earlier announcement Tuesday when Chavez was still believed to have been alive.
News of El Comandante’s death led some of his followers to pour into the streets of Venezuela, which the populist leftist had turned into a socialist state modeled partly on the Cuban regime that he revered.
“He was like my father. He had a soul that was very big, and we are very sad,” said Nancy del Nogal, 58, a worker in the state oil company, which Chavez purged of opponents. “He didn’t deserve it. We deserved it more than him. He fought for this country, and we’ll follow him and continue in this battle. Let that be clear to the world. We’ll fight for what he fought for here.”
Chavez, though, also deeply divided this country of 29 million.
He was able to take control of the courts, the congress and all other institutions, while forcing some of his toughest opponents into exile.
He called his critics part of a “corrupt elite” that wanted to sack Venezuela, though polls showed that nearly 50 percent of voters opposed his rule. He also became Latin America’s leading anti-U.S. leader, accusing the United States of plotting incessantly to topple his government.
Even on the day of his death, in a speech filled with accusations against the United States, Chavez’s closest associate, Maduro, had announced that there “is no doubt” that the country’s “historic enemies” had found a way to infect him with cancer.
After his death was announced, President Obama said in a statement that “the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.”
Under the constitution, Chavez’s death should trigger a presidential election to replace him within a month. Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said in a television interview Tuesday that Maduro will be the interim president until the election.
Although no one spoke of a campaign as Venezuelans tried to get a grip on the news, Chavez told his followers in a Dec. 8 televised address that his successor should be Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader with close links to Cuba’s leadership. The opposing candidate, political analysts say, would probably be Henrique Capriles, 40, a governor who lost to Chavez in an Oct. 7 presidential election by more than 10 points but has energized the opposition.
Many analysts say the opposition will have an uphill battle to win the presidency, with the sympathy votes playing in Maduro’s favor. The state’s heavy spending during election time, which includes handing out homes to voters, has also created believers who vote for Chavez’s self-styled revolutionary government.
“Chavistas,” those who are part of the former president’s movement, said they would ensure that his followers’ government retains power.
“The fight continues,” said Mari Pielo Garcia, 42, a hotel worker. “Chavez lives. Wherever they call on us, we’ll be there.”
George Ciccariello-Maher, a professor at Drexel University and author of the book “We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution,” said that “there is no reason to believe that Maduro would lose, given both the popularity of the revolution but also the weakness of the opposition.”
“And any government — right or left — will need to take seriously popular demands to continue, and even radicalize, the revolution,” Ciccariello-Maher said.
A leading opposition figure said she hopes that Venezuelans will come together now to form a country free of the angry divisions that marked the past 14 years. “A chapter has closed for Venezuela,” said Maria Corina Machado, a congresswoman. “We should take profound lessons from all of this.”
Venezuela had been in a state of tension for weeks after Chavez flew to Cuba on Dec. 10 for his fourth and most complicated of four cancer surgeries, which took place the following day.
He was never seen publicly again, with only four photos of him issued, showing him lying in a bed in February flanked by two of his daughters. Chavez returned to Venezuela on Feb. 18, spirited into Caracas in a pre-dawn flight, out of the sight of cameras or well-wishers. He was taken to the hospital where he would spend the rest of his days.
His poor state of health kept him from showing up to his Jan. 10 inauguration for a fourth term, prompting many Venezuelans to question whether the constitution was not being violated. Maduro and other ministers appeared to be running the day-to-day affairs of state, though their leader had not taken the oath of office.
The absence of Chavez from Venezuela’s daily life was an astonishing shift in a country where all things political had revolved around a man who loved the limelight — a loquacious and bombastic leader known to give speeches lasting up to 10 hours. Indeed, an entire state media apparatus — with six television stations, a number of newspapers and dozens of community radio stations — was built to amplify his message.
Forero reported from Charleston, W.Va.