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March 5, 2013

Hugo Chavez, fiery Venezuelan leader, dies at 58

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez was a fighter. The former paratroop commander and fiery populist waged continual battle for his socialist ideals and outsmarted his rivals time and again, defeating a coup attempt, winning re-election three times and using his country’s vast oil wealth to his political advantage.

A self-described “subversive,” Chavez fashioned himself after the 19th century independence leader Simon Bolivar and renamed his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

He called himself a “humble soldier” in a battle for socialism and against U.S. hegemony. He thrived on confrontation with Washington and his political opponents at home, and used those conflicts to rally his followers.

Almost the only adversary it seemed he couldn’t beat was cancer. He died Tuesday in Caracas at 4:25 p.m. local time after his prolonged illness. He was 58.

During more than 14 years in office, his leftist politics and grandiose style polarized Venezuelans. The barrel-chested leader electrified crowds with his booming voice, and won admiration among the poor with government social programs and a folksy, nationalistic style.

His opponents seethed at the larger-than-life character who demonized them on television and ordered the expropriation of farms and businesses. Many in the middle class cringed at his bombast and complained about rising crime, soaring inflation and government economic controls.

Chavez used his country’s vast oil wealth to launch social programs that included state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs. Poverty declined during Chavez’s presidency amid a historic boom in oil earnings, but critics said he failed to use the windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars to develop the country’s economy.

Inflation soared and the homicide rate rose to among the highest in the world.

Before his struggle with cancer, he appeared on television almost daily, frequently speaking for hours and breaking into song or philosophical discourse. He often wore the bright red of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or the fatigues and red beret of his army days. He had donned the same uniform in 1992 while leading an ill-fated coup attempt that first landed him in jail and then launched his political career.

The rest of the world watched as the country with the world’s biggest proven oil reserves took a turn to the left under its unconventional leader, who considered himself above all else a revolutionary.

“I’m still a subversive,” the president told The Associated Press in a 2007 interview, recalling his days as a rebel soldier. “I think the entire world has to be subverted.”

Chavez was a master communicator and savvy political strategist, and managed to turn his struggle against cancer into a rallying cry, until the illness finally defeated him.

From the start, he billed himself as the heir of Bolivar, who led much of South America to independence. He often spoke beneath a portrait of Bolivar and presented replicas of the liberator’s sword to allies. He built a soaring mausoleum in Caracas to house the remains of “El Libertador.”

Chavez also was inspired by his mentor Fidel Castro and took on the Cuban leader’s role as Washington’s chief antagonist in the Western Hemisphere after the ailing Castro turned over the presidency to his brother Raul in 2006. Like Castro, Chavez vilified U.S.-style capitalism while forming alliances throughout Latin America and with distant powers such as Russia, China and Iran.

Supporters eagerly raised Chavez to the pantheon of revolutionary legends ranging from Castro to Argentine-born rebel Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Chavez nurtured that cult of personality, and even as he stayed out of sight for long stretches fighting cancer, his out-sized image appeared on buildings and billboard throughout Venezuela. The airwaves boomed with his baritone mantra: “I am a nation.” Supporters carried posters and wore masks of his eyes, chanting, “I am Chavez.”

In the battles Chavez waged at home and abroad, he captivated his base by championing his country’s poor.

“This is the path: the hard, long path, filled with doubts, filled with errors, filled with bitterness, but this is the path,” Chavez told his backers in 2011. “The path is this: socialism.”

On television, he would lambast his opponents as “oligarchs,” scold his aides, tell jokes, reminisce about his childhood, lecture Venezuelans on socialism and make sudden announcements, such as expelling the U.S. ambassador or ordering tanks to Venezuela’s border with Colombia.

Chavez carried his in-your-face style to the world stage as well. In a 2006 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he called President George W. Bush the devil, saying the podium reeked of sulfur after the U.S. president’s address.

At a summit in 2007, he repeatedly called Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a fascist, prompting Spain’s King Juan Carlos to snap, “Why don’t you shut up?”

Critics saw Chavez as a typical Latin American caudillo, a strongman who ruled through force of personality and showed disdain for democratic rules. Chavez concentrated power in his hands with allies who dominated the congress and justices who controlled the Supreme Court.

“El Comandante,” as he was known, insisted Venezuela remained a vibrant democracy and denied charges that he sought to restrict free speech. But some opponents faced criminal charges and were driven into exile. His government forced the opposition-aligned television channel, RCTV, off the air by refusing to renew its license.

While Chavez trumpeted plans for communes and an egalitarian society, his rhetoric regularly conflicted with reality. Despite government seizures of companies and farmland, the balance between Venezuela’s public and private sectors changed little during his presidency.

Nonetheless, Chavez maintained a core of supporters who stayed loyal to their “comandante” until the end.

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