Caracas, Venezuela • President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela died Tuesday afternoon after a long 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.
With his voice cracking and close to tears, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said that he and other officials had gone to the military hospital where Chavez was being treated, sequestered from the public, when “we received the hardest and most tragic information that we could transmit to our people.”
Within short order, police officers and soldiers were highly visible as people ran through the streets, calling loved ones on cellphones, rushing to get home. The capital quickly became an enormous traffic jam. Stores and shopping malls abruptly closed. As darkness fell, government television showed a muted crowd congregating in the main square of Caracas, some people crying.
“He’s the best president in history,” said Andres Mejia, 65, a retiree in Cumana, 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 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. The election itself is likely to pit Maduro, whom Chavez designated as his political successor, against Henrique Capriles Radonski, a young state governor who lost to Chavez in a presidential election in October.
Chavez changed Venezuela in fundamental ways, empowering and energizing millions of poor people who had felt marginalized and excluded.
But Chavez’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.
Jaua, announced that on Wednesday Chavez’s body will be taken to the military academy in Caracas and lie in state there. Jaua said that the government would hold a ceremony Friday with visiting heads of state and that officials would announce later where Chavez would be laid to rest.
Venezuelans in U.S. hopeful of change
Venezuelans living in the United States are reacting with cautious optimism that there will be change in their homeland following President Hugo Chavez’s death.
In the Miami suburb of Doral, Venezuelans watched on television as the country’s vice president, Nicolas Maduro, announced Chavez had died Tuesday. At a popular restaurant, one person cheered at the news, but the rest watched quietly and refrained from any celebration.
Doral has the largest concentration of Venezuelans in the U.S. Dora’s mayor and police chief prepared a security and contingency plan in the event of Chavez’s death. Many Venezuelans are expected to gather at restaurants and meeting spots in Miami, though few people immediately showed up.
There are nearly 190,000 Venezuelans in the United States. Many are strongly anti-Chavez.
The Associated Press