By Tracy Connor, Staff Writer, NBC News
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the charismatic leftist who dominated his country with sweeping political change and flamboyant speeches, died Tuesday at age 58, after a long battle with cancer that was shrouded in mystery and prevented him from being inaugurated for a fourth term.
Adored or reviled for his self-styled populist revolution, Chavez held sway over Venezuela through a cult of personality, government reforms that championed the downtrodden, and an endless stream of rhetoric denouncing capitalism, imperialism and the United States.
The “Chavistas” praised El Comandante for reducing extreme poverty and expanding access to health care and education. Critics blamed him for high inflation, food shortages, escalating crime and mismanagement of the country’s oil industry.
Human rights groups lambasted him for politicizing the judicial branch, and undermining the democratic system of checks and balances.
To many he was a charming populist who sang and danced on his weekly television show and gave the impoverished a voice; others saw him as an autocrat who plastered his portrait all over the country and failed to deliver on the promises of what he called the “Bolivarian revolution.”
“He will be remembers as someone who generated over 14 years an international presence and impact way beyond his country’s size or wealth and beyond his own talent and personal charisma,” said Jorge Castenada, the former Mexico foreign minister and NBC’s Latin American policy analyst.
“And I think he’ll be remembered for having tried to make a life of poor people in Venezuela better but in the end of the day, having made it worse. When the consequences of his economic policies become apparent, it will end up that he spent an enormous amount of money to make people a little better off for a short period of time.”
The last two years of his presidency were overshadowed by his health struggles. After declaring himself free of an unspecified cancer, he fended off a tough challenge to win re-election in 2012 — even giving an epic nine-hour speech during the campaign.
He soon relapsed and was rushed to Cuba for surgery. He was deemed too sick to be sworn into office in early January, and was still gravely ill when he made a surprise return to Venezuela in mid-February, heralded on a Twitter account with 4 million followers.
His deputies insisted he was still in control, signing documents and holding meetings in a Caracas hospital room even if a tube in his throat had silenced his well-known voice. But by this week, the end seemed imminent with reports of a new respiratory infection.
In an address to the nation Tuesday afternoon, Vice President Nicholas Maduro said Chavez was facing his “most difficult hours” and claimed the cancer was an “attack” by his enemies. A few hours later, he announced Chavez’s death at 4:25 p.m.
“Honor and glory to Hugo Chavez,” an emotional Maduro said in Spanish on Venezuelan television, calling for public memorials at every town square in the country but warning against violence or hatred.
Born July 28, 1954, to schoolteachers in a small Venezuelan village, Chavez was raised by his grandmother and entered the military academy in Caracas at age 17. Six years later, inspired by the life of 19th century South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, he formed a secret movement within the army.
Rising through the military to the rank of captain, he led a bloody coup attempt in 1992 that failed and landed him in prison. Pardoned two years later, the ex-paratrooper re-launched his revolt against the ruling class and announced his candidacy for president in 1998.
“The resurrection of Venezuela has begun, and nothing and no one can stop it,” he bellowed to a roaring crowd after a landslide victory made him the youngest president in the history of Venezuela.
As president, Chavez created a new constitution and had the name of the country changed to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. He took greater control of the state-run oil company, expanded the country’s armed forces, and instituted government programs to create jobs, housing and services for the poor.
A 2009 report by the progressive think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research found poverty was cut in half during the first decade of Chavez’s rule; child mortality fell by a third; malnutrition deaths were down by 50%; and college enrollment almost doubled.
At the same time, one non-government report estimated Venezuela’s murder rate quadrupled while Chavez was in power. In 2012, inflation hit 18%. Accusations of corruption and nepotism dogged his administration.
Problems aside, he enjoyed tremendous loyalty from his supporters. A 2002 coup during an economic crisis kept him out of power for just two days — and he claimed the United States had orchestrated it.
Chavez’s relations with the U.S. — referred to derisively as the “empire” in his epic speeches — were icy. He called President George W. Bush “the devil” and “the king of vacations.” In 2010, he demanded Secretary of State Hillary Clinton resign “along with those other delinquents working in the State Department.”
He often lavished praise on Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, but his staunchest ally was Cuba. He kept the island nation flush with oil in exchange for its well-trained doctors and teachers, and he was visiting Havana when he fell ill in June 2011.
In an address to the nation a few weeks later, he admitted neglecting his health and said it was Fidel Castro who got him to admit he wasn’t feeling well, leading to the discovery of a tumor in his pelvis and emergency surgery.
In the following months, the twice-divorced Catholic shuttled between Cuba and Caracas for treatment even as he sought a fourth term, made possible because he had pushed through the abolition of term limits in the constitution he had rewritten.
Days before the election he would win with 54 percent of the vote to his opponent’s 45 percent, he spoke to a rally of supporters in Caracas, displaying the trademark swagger that had made him one of Latin America’s most captivating, if polarizing, leaders.
“Since I haven’t failed you in these 14 years,” he said, according to the Associated Press. “I promise I won’t fail you in the next presidential term.
“Because Chavez doesn’t lie. Because Chavez doesn’t sell out. Because Chavez is the people. Because Chavez is truth. Because all of you are Chavez. We all are.”