x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Venezuela's president Chavez dies, nation declares week of mourning

Hugo Chavez lost his battle with cancer yesterday, his death silencing the leading voice of the Latin American left and plunging his oil-rich nation into an uncertain future.

A supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez holds a poster of him and a candle outside the Venezuelan embassy in Quito after knowing of his death. AFP Photo / Rodrigo Buendia
A supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez holds a poster of him and a candle outside the Venezuelan embassy in Quito after knowing of his death. AFP Photo / Rodrigo Buendia

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez lost his battle with cancer yesterday, his death silencing the leading voice of the Latin American left and plunging his oil-rich nation into an uncertain future.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who struggled to stifle tears as he announced Mr Chavez's passing, said the government had deployed the armed forces and police "to accompany and protect our people and guarantee the peace."

Venezuela, still divided after a close-run election in October last year, declared a week of national mourning, and a senior minister said a new poll would be called within what are sure to be 30 tense days.

Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said the 58-year-old Mr Chavez's hand-picked successor Mr Maduro would take over as interim leader pending the next election, declaring: "It is the mandate that comandante President Hugo Chavez gave us."

International reaction was mixed, with many in Latin America and beyond hailing Chavez's support for the poor but others expressing the hope that the iconic figure's passing would lead to a more open political system.

Venezuela's closest ally, communist Cuba, declared its own mourning period for a leader who helped prop up their island economy with cheap fuel and cash transfers, and dubbed Chavez a "true son" of revolutionary Fidel Castro.

But US President Barack Obama -- often the target of Mr Chavez's anti-American scorn -- was circumspect, pledging the United States would support the "Venezuelan people" and describing Chavez's passing as a "challenging time."

"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," Obama said in a short written statement.

Shortly before M Chavez's death was announced, senior officials had accused Venezuela's enemies of somehow giving the firebrand leftist the cancer that eventually killed him, and two US military attaches were expelled.

Mr Chavez was showered with tributes by Latin American leaders, not just his leftist allies but also world figures like Brazil's Dilma Rousseff, who hailed him as a "great Latin American" and "a friend of the Brazilian people."

Die-hard Chavista partisans gathered in Caracas' Plaza Bolivar -- named after the independence hero whose legacy Mr Chavez co-opted for his Bolivarian Revolution -- weeping, waving portraits and chanting his name.

"He was a man who taught us to love our fatherland," said 40-year-old municipal worker Francis Izquierdo. "The comandante is physically gone but he remains in our hearts and we must continue building the fatherland."

Soldiers brought the Venezuelan flag down to half-staff at a Caracas military hospital, where senior figures in Mr Chavez's 14-year-old administration gathered before the cameras of state television as Maduro break the news.

"Long live Chavez!" the officials shouted at the end of his announcement.

Defense Minister Diego Molero, surrounded by top military officers, said the armed forces would defend the constitution and respect Chavez's wishes.

Mr Chavez had checked into the hospital on February 18 for a course of chemotherapy after spending two months in Cuba, where in December he had undergone his fourth round of cancer surgery since June 2011.