Many Venezuelans are mourning the loss of President Hugo Chávez, who died at age 58 on March 5 following a long fight with cancer. After hearing news of Chávez’s death, his supporters, known as “Chávistas,” gathered outside a military hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, where he was being treated. “Our president is dead,” Venezuelan Sirleny Sosa, 50, told TIME while crying. “He’s done so much for this country.”
Chávez, a popular and influential Latin American leader, was born in poverty on July 28, 1954, in rural Sabaneta, Venezuela, and raised by his grandmother. He excelled at baseball and considered becoming a professional, but instead he joined the military and rose through the ranks to colonel. Chávez became President, or “el Comandante” (commander), in 1999 and went on to lead Venezuela for 14 years. He won his last reelection in 2012 by 11 points, even though his health made it hard for him to campaign. But he was unable to attend his own inauguration in January because he was receiving cancer treatment in Cuba.
A Controversial Rule
Venezuela, a Spanish-speaking country located in South America, has a population of more than 28 million people. The country won its independence from Spain in 1821. For much of its history, Venezuela was ruled by dictators. Since 1959, it has been a democracy. Venezuela is home to the world’s largest oil reserves, controlled by a state-run oil monopoly called Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). During his presidency, Chávez significantly increased PDVSA’s annual revenues. Venezuela’s high poverty rate dropped from nearly 50% in 1999 to about 27% in 2011, an improvement that helped Chávez get reelected.
But Chávez also made controversial changes that put more power into the hands of the president. He enacted laws that made insulting the president a criminal offense, expanded his power over the military and eliminated presidential term limits. Venezuela has also been plagued by steep inflation, frequent power outages and one of the world’s highest crime rates. Some Venezuelans wondered how a change in leadership will affect the country. “A very, very popular leader has died,” Caracas-based engineer Carlos Rivero, 42, told TIME. “Whether we liked him or not is not the point. He was revered by more than half the country.”
A Rocky Relationship
Chávez has been famously critical of the U.S. government. In 2001, he opposed a move by President George W. Bush to extend free trade agreements to Venezuela and other South American countries. He also blames the Bush administration for a failed attempt to overthrow him in 2002. Chávez remained suspicious of the U.S. government throughout his presidency and often used name-calling when speaking out against U.S. leaders. He also aligned himself with leaders of other anti-U.S. countries, such as Iran. Still, the U.S. remains a top buyer of Venezuelan oil.
U.S. President Barack Obama released a statement calling this a “challenging time” for Venezuela. “The United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government,” President Obama said. “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.”
The Venezuelan government is expected to hold a new presidential election within the next month. Polls indicate the winner will likely be Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s vice president who is now serving as interim President.
Updated March 7, 2013: Late Wednesday, General Jose Ornella, the head of Venezuela's presidential guard, told the Associated Press that the direct cause of Chavez's death was a heart attack.