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President Hugo Chavez dies at 58; hero to Venezuela's poor

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CARACAS, Venezuela —Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the charismatic socialist whose Bolivarian Revolution reduced poverty and galvanized anti-American sentiment across Latin America but left his nation deeply polarized and ever more dependent on oil dollars, died Tuesday in Caracas after a nearly-two-year battle with cancer. He was 58.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced the passing on national television, saying that Chavez had died at 4:25 p.m.

His death followed repeated treatments for pelvic cancer in Cuba, the country of his idol Fidel Castro, where his condition was first diagnosed in June 2011.

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Although Chavez finally disclosed the gravity of his illness in December after months of insisting he was cancer-free, news of his death was expected to shake his bedrock supporters, Venezuela's poor. They were the biggest beneficiaries of his 14 years in power, a period in which opponents in the country's middle class and elite said he grew increasingly iron-fisted and autocratic.

Chavez returned home from Cuba on Feb. 18 following his most recent surgery and remained out of sight at a military hospital in Caracas. Though he had been scheduled to be sworn in for a fourth term on Jan. 10, the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled he did not need to take the oath of office to remain president, a decision questioned by legal scholars.

His popularity with the poor helped propel him to victory in October balloting, gaining 55% of the vote despite rising crime, persistent scarcities of basic food items, double-digit inflation and unpopular foreign aid programs. His reelection was a testament to the near-religious devotion of Venezuela's impoverished to their comandante.

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Chavez won the lower classes' support by redistributing the nation's vast oil wealth through welfare programs called missions, which set up medical clinics and schools, operated a chain of cut-rate grocery stores, and divvied up nationalized farms and ranches among cooperatives of the impoverished.

Daniel Hellinger, a political science professor at Webster University in St. Louis, said the welfare programs reduced Venezuela's poverty rate from close to 80% in the 1990s to about 20%, and wiped out illiteracy.

"To millions of poor Venezuelans excluded from meaningful participation in politics, Chavez offered hope for a new kind of democracy that would open doors of government to them," Hellinger said. "However much the system fell short of that aspiration, it was Chavez who gave voice to it."

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Chavez maintained his link to the poor partly through his weekly "Alo Presidente" television show, during which he performed much like a televangelist spreading the gospel of his revolution.

But opponents criticized Chavez for concentrating power in the style of a classic Latin American caudillo, or military dictator. Although he was democratically elected four times, and won several nationwide referendums, he closed TV and radio stations critical of him, armed a civilian militia and brought the bureaucracy under close control, detractors said.

Chavez nationalized scores of energy, banking and telecommunications companies in addition to more than 1 million acres of farmland. That caused a steep decline in Venezuelan investment and productivity and made the nation ever more dependent on oil sales.

Despite the vast sums Venezuela collected over the last decade from its energy reserves, Chavez was forced to borrow more than $38 billion from the Chinese in the final years of his presidency to finance his domestic welfare and foreign aid programs. The loans are secured by future commitments to sell oil to Beijing.

"The poor have had more money to spend, but it's come at a great price," said Jeffrey Davidow, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela. "The money should have been put to productive use in industry, housing or education. So, in the long run, it hasn't been of much help to Venezuelans."

Chavez's influence extended far beyond Venezuela's borders. He roused Latin American opposition to the so-called Washington Consensus that developing nations should open their markets to free trade and foreign investors. He called President George W. Bush a terrorist for invading Afghanistan and the "devil" during a United Nations speech. He forged close links with other leftist leaders in the hemisphere, including Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.

That Chavez sought cancer treatment in Cuba was no coincidence. Chavez revered Castro and saw the Cuban revolution as a model for Venezuela. He gave generously to Cuba's shaky socialist state, reportedly supplying the nation with 100,000 barrels of crude per day at cut-rate prices. In exchange, Cuba sent 12,000 doctors, athletic trainers and security personnel to Venezuela.

Before leaving for Cuba in December, Chavez named Maduro as his successor. However, the vice president does not automatically serve the rest of Chavez's term. The Venezuelan Constitution requires that a new election be called within 30 days of the death or resignation of the incumbent. The ruling party is riven with factions and Maduro's nomination is not a sure thing, with National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello seen as his chief rival.

In any case, Chavez's death leaves the way ahead for his party and Bolivarian Revolution anything but certain.

Chavez was born July 28, 1954, to schoolteachers in Sabaneta, western Barinas state, and he knew poverty firsthand. He has told interviewers that as a boy he often went fishing with his father to put food on the table, and sold sweets in the town square to pay for his school supplies.

After giving up his dream of becoming a professional baseball player, Chavez entered the nation's military academy and was given an officer's commission after graduating in 1975. But he soon became disenchanted by what he saw as the corruption of army brass, and radicalized by having to hunt down leftist rebels who were fighting for the poor.

In 1982, Chavez formed a secret group with other disgruntled army officers and swore to someday cleanse the nation of corruption. His model was South America's "liberator," Simon Bolivar, who led independence movements from Spain in the early 19th century.

The Chavez-led group became more determined than ever to rebel after February 1989 riots called the Caracazo, which swept the capital, Caracas, after President Carlos Andres Perez tried to raise fuel prices and bus fares. Hundreds of impoverished protesters were killed by army units sent to suppress them.

Soon after taking command of a paratroop unit in Maracay, Chavez decided the time had come to act. In February 1992, he led 12,000 rebel troops who moved on several cities. But a communication breakdown and the failure to capture Perez in Caracas doomed the coup.

Chavez surrendered and spent two years in jail before being pardoned in 1994 by President Rafael Caldera. Chavez then decided on a democratic course and began the presidential campaign that would lead to victory at the polls in 1998.

Chavez became the youngest Venezuelan president in history when he took office in February 1999 at age 44. He secured a solid mandate with 56.5% of the vote by appealing to a broad spectrum of Venezuelans sick of corruption, and especially to the poor.

Later that year, 71% of voters approved a new constitution promoted by Chavez.

But his policies soon soured with the middle class and the nation's elites.

In April 2002, rebel military elements led by businessman Pedro Carmona launched a coup attempt against Chavez, who was held prisoner for two days. But loyal officers and legions of poor supporters outside the presidential palace turned the tide. Chavez later blamed the coup on support from President Bush, who seemed to tacitly welcome the uprising.

Within a year, the country was paralyzed by a series of strikes, including one by the state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela after Chavez fired the top management.

Since then, Chavez had led an increasingly polarized nation, using his oratorical skills to outmaneuver his often fragmented, sometimes hapless opposition. In 2004, he easily survived a recall referendum. Two years later he won a landslide reelection, with 63% of the vote.

To seal his most recent reelection triumph, Chavez used massive handouts including free appliances and even free housing partially financed by Chinese loans to help thump challenger Henrique Capriles by 10 percentage points.

Chavez's relations with the United States became less tense with the election of President Obama, who exchanged greetings with Chavez at the April 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

Analysts believe Chavez had little to gain in trashing Obama, who is popular in Latin America. The two nations are tied by oil: Venezuela was the fifth-largest exporter of oil to the U.S. in 2011, averaging shipments of just under 1 million barrels a day.

But bilateral relations are anything but cordial. The State Department has accused Chavez of not doing enough to combat drug trafficking, which has become a major scourge in Venezuela. And on Tuesday, Maduro expelled  the U.S. Embassy's military attache, accusing him of vague "illegal activity that mocks international conventions.

Chavez, who was married and divorced twice, is survived by four children and three grandchildren, as well as his parents, Hugo and Helena, and five brothers.

Kraul and Mogollon are special correspondents.

news.obits@latimes.com

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