CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who died Tuesday after a long struggle with cancer, left behind a bitterly divided nation in the grip of a political crisis that grew more acute as he languished for weeks, silent and out of sight in hospitals in Havana and Caracas.
Shortly after his death was announced by Vice President Nicolas Maduro, police officers and soldiers were highly visible as people ran through the streets, calling loved ones on cellphones, rushing to get home. Caracas, the capital, which had just received news that the government was throwing out two U.S. military attachés it accused of sowing disorder, quickly became an enormous traffic jam. Stores and shopping malls abruptly closed.
As darkness fell, somber crowds congregated in the main square of Caracas and at the military hospital, with men and women crying openly in sadness and doubt about what would come next. In one neighborhood, Chávez supporters set fire to tents and mattresses used by university students who had chained themselves together in protest several days earlier to demand more information about Chávez ’s condition.
“Are you happy now?” the Chávez supporters shouted as they ran through the streets with sticks. “Chávez is dead! You got what you wanted!”
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Chávez’s departure from a country he dominated for 14 years casts into doubt the future of his socialist revolution. It alters the political balance not only in Venezuela, the fourth-largest foreign oil supplier to the United States, but also in Latin America, where Chávez led a group of nations intent on reducing U.S. influence in the region.
Chávez, 58, changed Venezuela in fundamental ways, empowering and energizing millions of poor people who had felt marginalized and excluded.
But Chávez ’s rule also widened society’s divisions. His death is sure to bring more changes and vast uncertainty as the nation tries to find its way without its central figure.
Vice president steps up
The Venezuelan Constitution says the nation should “proceed to a new election” within 30 days when a president dies in the first four years of his term, and Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said in a television interview that Maduro would take the helm in the meantime.
He said Chávez ’s body will be taken to the military academy in Caracas on Wednesday and lie in state there. Jaua said the government would hold a ceremony Friday with visiting heads of state and that officials would announce later where Chávez would be laid to rest.
The election to replace him is likely to pit Maduro, whom Chávez designated as his political successor, against Henrique Capriles Radonski, a young state governor who lost to Chávez in a presidential election in October.
But there has been heated debate in recent months over clashing interpretations of the constitution, in light of Chávez ’s illness, and it is impossible to predict how the post-Chávez transition will proceed.
“We, your civilian and military companions, Commander Hugo Chávez, assume your legacy, your challenges, your project, accompanied by and with the support of the people,” Maduro told the nation.
Only hours earlier, the government seemed to go into a state of heightened alert as Maduro convened a crisis meeting in Caracas of Cabinet ministers, governors loyal to the president and top military commanders.
Taking a page out of Chávez ’s time-tested playbook, Maduro warned in a lengthy televised speech that the United States was seeking to destabilize the country. He said the government had expelled two U.S. military attachés, accusing one of seeking to recruit Venezuelan military personnel. He called on Venezuelans to unite as he raised the specter of foreign intervention.
Few details on cancer
Chávez was given a diagnosis of cancer in June 2011, but throughout his treatment he kept many details about his illness secret, refusing to say what kind of cancer he had or where in his body it occurred.
He had three operations from June 2011 to February 2012, as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but the cancer kept coming back. The surgery and most other treatments were done in Cuba.
Then Dec. 8, just two months after winning re-election, Chávez announced in a televised address that he needed yet another surgery.
That operation, his fourth, took place in Havana on Dec. 11. In the aftermath, grim-faced aides described the procedure as complex and said his condition was delicate. They eventually notified the country of complications, first bleeding and then a severe lung infection and difficulty breathing.
After previous operations, Chávez often appeared on television while recuperating in Havana, posted messages on Twitter or was heard on telephone calls made to television programs on a government station. But after his December surgery, he was not seen again in public, and his voice fell silent.
Chávez’s aides eventually announced that a tube had been inserted in his trachea to help his breathing and that, as a result, he had difficulty speaking. It was the ultimate blow for a man who seemed never at a loss for words, often improvising for hours at a time on television, haranguing, singing, lecturing, reciting poetry and orating.
As the weeks dragged on, tensions rose in Venezuela, and the situation turned increasingly bizarre. Officials in Chávez’s government strove to project an image of business as usual and deflected inevitable questions about a vacuum at the top. At the same time, the country struggled with an out-of-balance economy, troubled by soaring prices and escalating shortages of basic goods.
The opposition, weakened after defeats in the presidential election in October and elections for governor in December, in which its candidates lost in 20 of 23 states, sought to keep pressure on the government.
Then officials suddenly announced Feb. 18 that Chávez had returned to Caracas. He arrived unseen on a predawn flight and was installed in a military hospital for treatments, aides said.