Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died on Tuesday, the country’s vice president said, ending 14 years of rule by the fiery and controversial Socialist, and leaving the country in political uncertainty.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said that Chavez died “after battling a tough illness for nearly two years.”
He was 58 and was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011.
According to Venezuela’s constitution, a presidential election must follow in order to replace Chavez, whose illness prevented him from taking the oath of office for the term to which he was re-elected last year.
Military chiefs pledge loyalty to Maduro
Under the constitution, the head of Congress, Diosdado Cabello, would assume the interim presidency.
But Chavez had named Maduro as his preferred successor, and the vice president has been taking on a larger role since the leader disappeared in early December to undergo a fourth round of cancer surgery in Cuba.
Maduro has frequently commandeered all broadcast channels, as Chavez was known to do, to tout the “revolution” and vilify the opposition.
Meanwhile, in the wake of Chavez’s death, Venezuela’s military chiefs appeared live on state TV to pledge their loyalty to Maduro.
The announcement of Chavez’s death came just hours after Maduro announced the government had expelled two US diplomats from the country.
Maduro also said that there was “no doubt” that Chavez’s cancer was caused by “the historical enemies of our homeland,” comparing the situation to the death of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, claiming Arafat, too, was “inoculated with an illness”.
Chavez’s inner circle has long accused the US of orchestrating a failed 2002 attempt to overthrow him, and he has frequently voiced anti-American rhetoric to stir up support.
Venezuela has been without a US ambassador since July 2010.
Maduro seeking to delay election?
Some analysts wondered whether Maduro’s suggestion that the country was under attack by US subterfuge might in fact be an excuse to delay the election that the country’s constitution calls for, and in the meantime tighten his grip on power.
Maduro aired his claim of an alleged attempt to destabilize “Venezuelan society” and the “political system constructed in recent years” earlier Tuesday before the nation’s high command and the governors of 20 of 23 states loyal to President Chavez, half of them former military officers.
He accused the US embassy’s air force attaché Col. David Delmonaco of spying on Venezuela’s military and gave him 24 hours to leave the country.
Later Tuesday, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said a second US air force attaché was being expelled, also for alleged espionage.
Maduro also said the government was “on the trail of other elements that figure in this entire venomous scenario and are seeking to stir up trouble.”
Except for photos released in mid-February, Chavez had neither been seen nor heard from since undergoing a fourth round of surgery in Cuba on Dec. 11 for an unspecified cancer in the pelvic area.
The government said Chavez returned home on Feb. 18 and had been confined to Caracas’ military hospital ever since.
The man Chavez defeated in Oct. 7 presidential elections, Henrique Capriles, would be expected to represent the opposition in any new elections.
Maduro repeated government claims that Capriles met in the United States over the weekend with right-wing US conspirators.
President Barack Obama on Tuesday said the United States is interested in starting a new relationship with Venezuela after the death of its socialist president.
“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,” he said.
Chavez ran Venezuela for more than 14 years as a virtual one-man show, gradually placing all state institutions under his personal control. But the former army commander, who rose to fame by launching a failed 1992 coup, failed to groom a successor with the same force of personality.