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Obituaries

Hugo Chavez, 58; fiery populist split nation as he sought to unite region

President Chavez was a boisterous speaker, often talking extemporaneously for hours.

2004 file/AFP/Getty Images

President Chavez was a boisterous speaker, often talking extemporaneously for hours.

CARACAS — Hugo Chavez, who rose from poverty in a dirt-floor adobe house to unrivaled influence in Venezuela as its president, consolidating power and wielding the country’s oil reserves as a tool for his Socialist-inspired change, died Tuesday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said. He was 58.

Maduro said President Chavez died at the military hospital in Caracas, where he had been treated for complications from his struggle with cancer.

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With a televangelist’s gift for oratory, President Chavez led a nationalist movement that lashed out at the US government, moneyed Venezuelans, and his own disaffected followers, whom he often branded as traitors.

He was a dreamer with a common touch and enormous ambition. He maintained an almost visceral connection with the poor, tapping into their resentments, while strutting like the strongman in a caudillo novel. His followers called him Comandante.

But he was not a stock figure. He grew up a have-not in an oil-rich country that prized ostentatious consumption. He was a man of mixed ancestry — African, indigenous, and Spanish — who despised a power structure dominated by Europeanized elites. As a soldier he hated hunting down guerrillas but had no qualms about using weapons to seize power, as he and a group of military co-conspirators tried but failed to do in 1992. Even so, he rose to power in democratic elections, in 1998.

In office, he upended the political order at home and used oil revenues to finance client nations in Latin America, notably Bolivia and Nicaragua. Inspired by Simon Bolivar, the mercurial Venezuelan aristocrat who led South America’s 19th-century wars of independence, President Chavez sought to unite the region and erode Washington’s influence.

Hugo Chavez (right), with brother Adam, grew up in poverty, reared by his grandmother.

Miraflores press office/AP Photo

Hugo Chavez (right), with brother Adam, grew up in poverty, reared by his grandmother.

‘‘The hegemonic pretensions of the American empire are placing at risk the very survival of the human species,’’ he said in a 2006 speech at the United Nations. In the same speech he called President George W. Bush ‘‘the devil.’’

For years, he succeeded in curbing US influence. He breathed life into Cuba, the hemisphere’s only Communist nation, with economic assistance; its revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, was not only an ally but also an inspiration. President Chavez forged a Bolivarian alliance with some of Latin America’s energy-exporting nations, including Ecuador and Bolivia, and applauded when they expelled US ambassadors, as he had done. He asserted greater state control over Venezuela’s economy by nationalizing dozens of foreign-owned assets, including oil projects controlled by Exxon Mobil and other US corporations.

Though he met opposition at home, he enjoyed broad support, in part by going into the slums to establish health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors and state-run stores selling subsidized food. These and other social welfare programs could be corrupt and inefficient, but they made the poor feel included in a society that had long ignored them.

At the same time, he was determined to hold onto and enhance his power. He grew obsessed with changing Venezuela’s laws to ensure that he could be reelected indefinitely and become, indeed, a caudillo, able to rule by decree at times.

A bizarre governing apparatus subject to his whims coalesced around him. State television cameras recorded nearly every public appearance, many of them to make surprise, unscripted announcements, often in his military uniform and paratrooper’s red beret. He might rail against Venezuela’s high consumption of Scotch whisky — he did not drink alcohol, his aides said — or its high demand for breast augmentation surgery. He once stunned citizens by decreeing a new time zone for the nation, a half-hour behind its previous one. Fawning Cabinet ministers sat through his televised lectures as he browbeat them.

Mr. Chavez (left), in jail after his arrest in a coup attempt.

REUTERS

Mr. Chavez (left), in jail after his arrest in a coup attempt.

Dr. Edmundo Chirinos, a psychiatrist who knew Chavez as a patient, described him in a profile in The New Yorker in 2001 as ‘‘a hyperkinetic and imprudent man, unpunctual, someone who overreacts to criticism, harbors grudges, is politically astute and manipulative, and possesses tremendous stamina, never sleeping more than two or three hours a night.’’

No mentor was more supportive than Castro, who well understood how important Venezuela’s subsidized oil shipments were to Cuba’s fragile economy. An ally from the start of Chavez’s presidency in 1999, he offered help in one of the Venezuelan leader’s most difficult moments, a coup d’etat that removed him from office for 48 hours in April 2002. Castro telephoned Venezuela’s top military officials, pressing them to assist in returning President Chavez to office.

The collapse of the coup, which is thought to have received tacit support from the Bush administration, signaled a shift in his presidency. President Chavez promised compromise and harmony, but instead his response was retaliation.

He purged opponents from the national oil company, expropriated the land of others, and imprisoned retired military officials who had dared to stand against him. The country’s political debate became increasingly poisonous, and it took its toll on the country.

Private investors, unhinged over the nationalizations and expropriation threats, halted projects. Hundreds of thousands of scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs and others in the middle class left Venezuela, even as large numbers of immigrants from Haiti, China and Lebanon put down stakes here.

The homicide rate soared under his rule, turning Caracas into one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Armed gangs lorded over prisons, challenging the state’s authority.

All the while, President Chavez rewrote the rule book on using the media to enhance his power. With ‘‘Alo Presidente’’ (“Hello, President”), his Sunday television program, he would speak to viewers in his booming voice for hours on end. His government ordered privately controlled stations to broadcast his speeches. While initially skeptical of social media, he came to embrace Twitter, attracting millions of followers.

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