Plaza Bolivar in downtown Caracas quickly filled with Venezuelans Tuesday night, mourning the death of their president and commandante, Hugo Chávez. Many rushed directly from work to the spot named after Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America and Chávez’s hero. The late president's signature red dotted the crowds. As car horns blasted, thousands waved campaign posters and cradled photos of the man who led a socialist revolution that has left both Venezuela and communities across Latin America markedly changed.
A chant rose from among the crowd: “The people united will never be defeated.”
Chavez stood at the helm of Venezuela for the past 14 years, winning his most recent reelection in October. Soon thereafter he announced that his cancer, which he had been battling for at least a year and a half, had returned. He flew to Cuba in December for treatment and surgery, and was not seen publicly again. Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced his passing on national TV this afternoon.
State television shared Twitter messages from people around the globe encouraging peace and expressing condolences to the Venezuelan people. Teary statements from neighboring leaders were aired, including words from Bolivia’s President Evo Morales. “Chavez will always be with us,” he said.
"It hurts, but we must stand united in this process of liberation, not only of Venezuela but of the whole region..." Mr. Morales said. "Chavez is now more alive than ever."
Chavez was a champion for the world’s underdogs and his country’s poor, missions bolstered by Venezuela’s vast petro-wealth. He created the Bolivarian Alliance, a bloc of leftist Latin American countries, to counter the might of international institutions like the World Bank, and poured his country’s oil wealth into neighboring nations like Bolivia, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
“Remember this is the first time within historical memory that a leftist revolution has had a big wad of dough to back it up,” says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
But countries that have not always been closely allied with Chávez spoke out tonight as well. The Guardian reports:
Colombian President Jose Manuel Santos praised President Chavez's contribution to the peace process with the FARC [rebels] in Colombia. Chavez cherished the Bolivarian dream of regional unity, Santos said. He conveyed his condolences to Chavez's daughters.
The firebrand leader made a name for himself on the international stage with his distaste for the “bourgeois” and wealthy nations that he said tried to dominate countries like Venezuela. The Los Angeles Times published a story entitled “Hugo Chavez: Words that made headlines,” highlighting such incidents as the time he called former President George W. Bush the devil, or blamed capitalism for killing off life on Mars.
But even these so-called “imperialist” enemies from the US and Europe released statements tonight marking the end of a remarkable era, with British Foreign Secretary William Hague noting that Chávez had made a lasting “impression on the country and more widely.” And in a statement released this evening, former US President Jimmy Carter said:
Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chávez's commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen.
President Chávez will be remembered for his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments and for his formidable communication skills and personal connection with supporters in his country and abroad to whom he gave hope and empowerment.
President Obama released a statement as well, just hours after the Chávez administration expelled two US embassy employees from the country:
At this challenging time of President Hugo Chávez's passing the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government…. As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.
According to the Constitution, the president of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, will serve as interim president until emergency elections are held in 30 days. Vice President Maduro was tapped by Chávez in December to be his party’s successor, and he is expected to face off against the opposition leader Henrique Capriles.