Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died Tuesday at the age of 58, according to an announcement on state-run television by Vice President Nicolas Maduro. (See the official announcement here).
Chavez, battling cancer for several months and receiving treatment in Cuba, won a fourth presidential term in October. Using Venezuela’s massive oil reserves to finance his political operations, became the leader of a left-leaning movement across Latin America.
In a message posted on Chavez’s official website on Monday, the government announced he faced “a new and severe respiratory infection” and that his breathing capacity had “deteriorated.” Chavez, who was being treated at the Hospital Militar Dr. Carlos Arvelo in Caracas, Venezuela, was receiving “high impact chemotherapy, and other complementary treatments.” He had returned to Caracas two weeks before.
Chavez’s death leaves an important power vaccuum in the large South American nation, the fourth largest exporter of crude oil to the U.S.
“It’s a national tragedy,” Maduro said, according to Argentine daily Perfil, adding “we have to be more united than ever” as he asked Venezuelans to reject violence and hatred.
The divisive leader had been in power since 1998, and had recently undergone four operations in Cuba for a cancer that was first detected in his pelvic region, according to Reuters. Chavez hadn’t been seen in public since December last year, when he went to Cuba to undergo further surgery.
In January, Spanish daily El Pais published pictures of Chavez undergoing treatment which were later found to be fakes, prompting the release of an official picture by Venezuelan authorities showing him reading a current newspaper a few weeks ago.
Beyond the political effects of his death, Chavez will leave behind an economy suffering from high inflation and rising GDP growth. Chavez has depended on oil dollars to finance his “XXI Century Socialism,” which has seen the central government nearly double in size in his 14 years in power, going from 21.4% of GDP to 37.8%. At the same time, Venezuela, which is the fourth largest exporter of oil to the U.S., has seen production slide. The South American nation currently produces between 2.5 and 3 million barrels of oil a day, about 40% of which are sent to the U.S., which in 2012 paid $34 billion for Venezuelan crude, according to Census Bureau.