Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has passed away at the age of 58 following a two-years-long fight against cancer and a severe respiratory infection. His untimely demise raises serious questions about the future of the oil-rich regional power.
The president of Venezuela died on Tuesday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced. “It’s a moment of deep pain,” he said, accompanied by senior ministers.
This comes weeks after his return from Cuba where he underwent a cancer operation. His ‘delicate condition’ had recently worsened due to complications of a respiratory infection, and official reports said he was breathing through a tracheal tube, unable to speak.
One of the world’s best-known socialist leaders and a staunch critic of the United States, Chavez had been battling the disease for nearly two years, undergoing four surgeries and several sessions of chemotherapy in Havana.
Despite his ailing health, Chavez was reelected in November to a fourth term. However, he was not able to attend his January 10 inauguration ceremony, which cast doubt on the succession of power in the country. Prior to his death, the Venezuelan opposition called for a new election should Chavez be unfit to take over the office.
The Venezuelan president was one of the most controversial world leaders in recent history, and a vocal critic of ‘US imperialism.’
Chavez began his adult life as an army officer in Venezuela’s paratrooper unit; he staged a coup in 1992 along with other disgruntled members of the military in an attempt to overthrow the ruling government of Carlos Andres Perez.
The coup failed, and Chavez spent two years in prison until he was pardoned; this marked the beginning of his momentous career in politics.
He then founded the revolutionary political party ‘Movement of the Fifth Republic’ and ran for president in 1998, promising economic reforms and campaigning against government corruption.
He won the presidency in 1999 by riding a wave of popular outrage at Venezuela’s traditional political elite.
Chavez has remained in power continually since then, except for a brief period in April 2002 when he was removed by military leaders over his controversial plan to tighten his personal grip on the state-run oil industry.
He returned to power, but a stalemate ensued, which led to referendum in 2004 on whether Chavez should remain president. A majority of voters chose for Chavez to complete his term.
Revolutionary or autocrat?
Mr. Chavez promised Venezuelans ‘revolutionary’ social policies targeting the ‘predatory oligarchs’ of the establishment. Since he came to power, most major Venezuelan companies have been nationalized. Since 1998, more than 100,000 state-owned cooperatives – which claim to represent some 1.5 million people – have been formed.
His supporters say he speaks for the poor, while his critics argue that he has become increasingly autocratic.
In 2010, Amnesty International criticized the Chavez administration for targeting critics following several politically motivated arrests.
Freedom House listed Venezuela as being only ‘partly free’ in its annual Freedom in the World report in 2011.
Although freedom of the press is enshrined in the 1999 Venezuelan constitution, in 2009 Amnesty International criticized Chavez for “discriminatory policies that have undercut journalists’ freedom of expression.”
A strong regional player
Chavez may have been a source of controversy in foreign policy more than any other area, refocusing Venezuelan policy on economic and social integration in Latin American.
He introduced what became known as ‘oil diplomacy’ on the continent, saying that his country has “a strong oil card to play on the international stage. … It is a card we are going to play with toughness against the toughest country in the world, the United States.”
Chavez brokered deals to exchange Venezuelan oil for Brazilian arms, for Cuban expertise and for Argentinian meat and dairy products. He also partnered with Latin American leaders on energy integration, and has vigorously pursued efforts to expand trade integration across the continent.
He was a vocal supporter of Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in her long-running dispute with Britain over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands.
Hostility to the US
Throughout his presidency, Chavez was particularly hostile towards the United States, which he blamed for the failed 2002 coup against him. In December 2011, Chavez also speculated that the United States could be infecting the regions leaders with cancer. He objected to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said that he considered George W. Bush to be an ‘evil imperialist.’
He threatened to stop selling oil to the US in the event of another attempted coup, but also donated heating oil to help the victims of hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which destroyed fuel processing facilities in the US.
Chavez developed strong ties with the government of Iran and introduced industrial, economic and energy cooperation with the Islamic state. Chavez and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly declared their alliance in what the Venezuelan president called an attempt to “liberate themselves from the imperialist yoke,” declaring they were an “axis of unity” against “US imperialism.”
Chavez also expressed a favorable view of Iran’s controversial nuclear power program and denied that Iran aims to develop atomic weapons, much to considerable alarm in Washington.
Under Chavez, Venezuela also strengthened relations with Russia. Since 2005, Venezuela has purchased $4 billion worth of arms from Russia, including 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles, and the two countries have held joint naval exercises in the Caribbean Sea.
In 2010, Chavez announced that Russia would build Venezuela’s first nuclear power station, and that the nation had agreed to a further $1.6 billion in oil contracts with Moscow.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro has argued that “the unipolar world is collapsing and finishing in all aspects, and the alliance with Russia is part of that effort to build a multipolar world.”
While Chavez is regarded as a hero of socialism by many at home and abroad, he leaves behind a country in crisis.
His government is widely blamed for mismanaging Venezuela’s economy; with inflation running at 18 percent, another credit devaluation is likely. The country’s homicide rate is likewise staggering – in 2010, Caracas had the world’s highest murder rate. Corruption is notoriously rampant in virtually every public institution, and consumer goods are scarce.
During the November elections, Chavez defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by 11 percentage points. Critics accused his government of controlling the media and election apparatus, and of employing bullying tactics to discourage competition.
There is now a chance that Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s chosen successor, could face a steep challenge should he run in the country’s forthcoming presidential election.