Girish Gupta

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Hugo Chavez dies, leaving Venezuela in turmoil
Mar. 6, 2013 — Caracas, Venezuela

Published by The Telegraph [PDF]

Jon Swaine, Girish Gupta, David Blair and Donna Bowater

Hugo Chavez, the self-styled socialist revolutionary who led Venezuela for more than 14 years and became a flamboyant emblem of anti-Americanism, has died, leaving his country in turmoil.

Venezuela has been plunged into uncertainty as Hugo Chavez, the charismatic leader of the last 14 years, died after losing his two-year-battle with cancer.

Nicolas Maduro, the vice-president and Mr Chavez’s chosen successor, claimed power in Caracas after announcing live on television: “Our commander-president, Hugo Chavez, is dead”. The 58-year-old, who only returned to Venezuela last month after travelling to Cuba last year for treatment, succumbed to a “severe respiratory infection” after months of treatment for cancer.

Within minutes of the announcement of Chavez’s death, the Venezuelan national flag was lowered to half mast in Caracas.

Thousands of people streamed through the streets of the capital within minutes of the announcement, holding banners proclaiming “Chavez is our leader” and “Chavismo will continue”.

Patricia Villegas, a Venezuelan journalist who was outside the military hospital where the president died, said: “There were tears, people looked to the sky and gave thanks for the social changes that had been brought about.”

Mr Maduro, who faces a struggle for control of the ruling Socialist party, promptly received the endorsement of Venezuela’s military, which he deployed to the streets following his announcement.

Wilmer Barrientos, strategic commander of the Venezuelan Armed Forces (FAN), told the state broadcaster there was a plan to patrol the country “to defend the Fatherland” in the hours after Chavez’s death.

The vice- president, who must face a general election within 30 days, moved swiftly to replicate the anti-American rhetoric with which his predecessor whipped poverty-stricken supporters into a frenzy.

Even as Mr Chavez lay dying, his deputy was expelling two American diplomats from Caracas, accusing them of working to “destabilise the government” by exploiting a power vacuum.

Mr Maduro had earlier blamed Mr Chavez’s deteriorating health on an “attack” by foreign enemies.

He told Venezuelans he had no doubt that Mr Chavez’s cancer, which was diagnosed in 2011, was the result of a poisoning by “enemies of our homeland”. The US rejected the claim as “absurd”.

Henrique Capriles Radonski, the country’s opposition leader, cautiously “advocated unity” among Venezuelans, amid fears of disquiet. “My sympathy to all the family and supporters of President Hugo Chavez,” he said in a statement.

Mr Chavez’s daughter, Maria Gabriela Chavez, spoke of her sadness at her father’s death and urged her compatriots to extend his legacy of self-styled Socialist radicalism.

“I have no words,” she wrote on Twitter. “Eternally,thanks! Strength! We should follow his example. We must continue to build the homeland! Farewell my daddy!”

In a carefully-worded statement released by the White House, President Barack Obama said that “at this challenging time”, the US “reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people”.

“The United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, Mr Obama said.
Yet Mr Chavez’s demise was welcomed by many leaders in Washington. “Good riddance,” said Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House foreign affairs committee.

Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House intelligence committee, said: “I hope his death provides an opportunity for a new chapter in US-Venezuelan relations”.

However Jose Serrano, a Democrat from The Bronx, New York City’s most impoverished borough, hailed Mr Chavez as a leader who “understood the needs of the poor”. “He was committed to empowering the powerless,” Mr Serrano wrote on Twitter. “RIP Mr President”.

Mr Chavez repeatedly condemned what he called American imperialism, proudly styling himself as one of Washington’s most vocal critics and irritating opponents.

Speaking at the United Nations, he described then-president George W. Bush as “the devil”. After endorsing Mr Obama in 2008, he later said the young Democratic president had been disappointing and merely extended US wrongdoing.

William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said he was “saddened” to learn of Mr Chavez’s death.

“As President of Venezuela for 14 years he has left a lasting impression on the country and more widely. I would like to offer my condolences to his family and to the Venezuelan people at this time.”

Amadou Boudou, the vice-president of Argentina, expressed his “great sorrow for the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez”, stressing that sympathy was felt across the region.

“There is great pain in all of America,” he said. “He was one of the best. Farewell, Commander.”

Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry expressed solidarity with the Venezuelan people to “mourn the irreparable loss to Venezuela and the region.” President Fernando Cordero sent a tribute to the Chavez family.

Mr Chavez returned to Venezuela from Cuba last month, but this most outgoing of leaders had failed to make any public appearances, causing rumours of his demise to sweep Caracas.

The president’s health had been a closely-guarded secret, and the nature of his cancer had never been officially disclosed.

Mr Maduro would probably face Mr Capriles, the opposition leader, in elections next month. The 50-year-old vice-president is a loyal “Chavista”, but lacks the charisma that allowed his mentor to win four successive elections.

Mr Capriles lost a presidential election against Mr Chavez last year. A contest against Mr Maduro, who is embattled against internal party opponents, may give Venezuela’s opposition a renewed chance.

In 2002, Mr Chavez was briefly toppled in a coup, before being restored by popular demonstrations. His allies believe the US was behind that episode. Constant attacks on America and claims that Washington seeks Mr Chavez’s downfall have been themes of his rule.

Filed from
Caracas, Venezuela






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© Girish Gupta