Chávez Dies, Leaving Sharp Divisions in Venezuela
President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela died Tuesday afternoon after a struggle with cancer, the government announced, leaving 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.
Close to tears and his voice cracking, Vice President Nicolás Maduro said he and other officials had gone to the military hospital where Mr. Chávez was being treated, sequestered from the public, when “we received the hardest and most tragic information that we could transmit to our people.”
In short order, 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 American 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 fear 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 Mr. 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!”
Mr. 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 supplier of foreign oil to the United States, but also in Latin America, where Mr. Chávez led a group of nations intent on reducing American influence in the region.
Mr. Chávez, 58, changed Venezuela in fundamental ways, empowering and energizing millions of poor people who had felt marginalized and excluded. But his rule also widened society’s divisions, and his death is sure to bring vast uncertainty as the nation tries to find its way without its central figure.
“He’s the best president in history,” said Andrés Mejía, 65, a retiree in Cumaná, an eastern city, crying as he gathered with friends in a plaza. “Look at how emotional I am — I’m crying. I cannot accept the president’s death. But the revolution will continue with Maduro.”
The Constitution says that, since Mr. Chávez was at the start of a term, the nation should “proceed to a new election” within 30 days, and Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said in a television interview that Mr. Maduro would take the helm in the meantime. The election is likely to pit Mr. Maduro, whom Mr. Chávez designated as his political successor, against Henrique Capriles Radonski, a young state governor who lost to Mr. Chávez in the presidential election in October.
But in light of Mr. Chávez’s illness, there has been heated debate in recent months over clashing interpretations of the Constitution, and it is impossible to predict how the 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,” Mr. Maduro told the nation.
Only hours earlier, the government seemed to go into a state of heightened alert as Mr. Maduro convened a crisis meeting in Caracas of cabinet ministers, governors loyal to the president and top military commanders.
Taking a page out of Mr. Chávez’s time-tested playbook, Mr. Maduro warned in a lengthy televised speech that the United States was seeking to destabilize the country, and the government expelled the two American military attachés, accusing one of seeking to recruit Venezuelan military personnel to carry out “destabilizing projects.” He called on Venezuelans to unite as he raised the specter of foreign intervention.