CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a barrel-chested former paratrooper who tapped his nation's oil wealth to deliver social welfare programs for the impoverished masses, died Tuesday at a Caracas military hospital where he was moved last month after a 10-week stay in Cuba for cancer treatment, Vice President Nicolas Maduro told national television.
Maduro said Chavez died at 4:25 p.m.
Chavez, 58, had been elected to a fourth term as head of state in October but signaled before his departure for Cuba on Dec. 9 that his prolonged battle with pelvic cancer might preclude him from attending the constitutionally mandated Jan. 10 inauguration. Chavez missed the event, setting off disputes about whether he was still the legitimate head of state.
A career military officer partial to beribboned uniforms and a trademark red beret, Chavez battled right-wing and centrist challenges to his authoritarian leadership style throughout his 14 years in office. He was briefly toppled in a 2002 coup for which he blamed wealthy elitists opposed to his social spending and beholden to foreign adversaries, first among them the United States.
He survived a two-month nationwide strike, instigated by political opponents, that ended in January 2003, after paralyzing the oil industry that provides half the country's revenue. In 2004, he defeated a recall election organized by political foes angered by his virtual nationalization of oil commerce. He also fought running battles throughout his leadership with independent news media, muzzling critical voices with taxes, boycotts and legislative edicts.
But the poor in both the countryside and urban barrios loved him for the "missions" he established to use Venezuela's oil wealth to drastically reduce illiteracy, provide healthcare in the slums and open universities and government jobs to the struggling classes.
In an address to Venezuelans before his departure for Cuba, his last public appearance, a clearly despondent Chavez hinted that he might not recover. If he were to die before completing his current term or being sworn in for the next, Chavez said, Venezuelans should elect Vice President Nicolas Maduro to succeed him, saying, "This I ask you from the heart."
The Venezuelan Constitution, however, provides for the president of the National Assembly to step in should the elected president be unable to serve out the term. The presiding legislative chief, Diosdado Cabello, will be required by the constitution to organize a new presidential election within 30 days.
Maduro, 50, is a former bus driver who rose to union leader and congressman, and was tapped by Chavez during his previous administration to serve as foreign minister. In his role as vice president, he oversaw the government during Chavez's stay in Cuba and provided increasingly bleak reports on the president's condition after his Feb. 18 return home.