CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez lost his battle with cancer Tuesday, his death silencing the leading voice of the Latin American left and putting the oil-rich nation on a path to early elections.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who struggled to stifle tears as he announced his mentor’s passing, said the government had deployed the armed forces and police “to accompany and protect our people and guarantee the peace.”
Venezuela, still divided after an acrimonious election in October, declared a week of national mourning, and a senior minister said a new vote would be called within what are sure to be 30 tense days.
Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said 58-year-old Chávez’s hand-picked successor Maduro would take over as interim leader pending the next election, declaring: “It is the mandate that comandante President Hugo Chávez gave us.”
Hundreds of Chávez supporters crowded in front of the military hospital where he died, weeping and chanting “We are all Chávez!” and “Chávez lives!” as soldiers guarded the gate.
“He was our father, our liberator. Nobody expected such a tough blow from destiny,” said Carlos Pérez, a municipal worker holding a photo of a young Chávez in paratrooper uniform.
“We must continue building the revolution with Maduro, who will be the next president,” he said.
International reaction was mixed, with many in Latin America and beyond hailing Chávez’s support for the poor but others expressing hope that the iconic figure’s passing would lead to a more open political system.
Venezuela’s closest ally, communist Cuba, declared its own mourning period for a leader who helped prop up the island’s economy with cheap fuel and cash transfers, and dubbed Chávez a “true son” of revolutionary Fidel Castro.
But U.S. President Barack Obama – often a target of Chávez’s anti-American scorn – was circumspect, pledging the United States would support the “Venezuelan people” and describing Chávez’s passing as a “challenging time.”
“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,” Obama said in a short statement.
Shortly before Chávez’s death was announced, Maduro expelled two U.S. military attachés and accused Venezuela’s enemies of somehow afflicting the firebrand leftist with the cancer that eventually killed him.
Chávez was showered with tributes by Latin American leaders, not just his allies but also figures like Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, who hailed him as a “great Latin American” and a “friend of the Brazilian people.”
The president’s body will be taken to a military academy on Wednesday, where he will lie in state until a memorial service with foreign leaders on Friday.
Soldiers brought the Venezuelan flag down to half-staff at the military hospital, where senior figures in Chávez’s 14-year-old administration gathered before the cameras of state television as Maduro broke the news.
“Long live Chávez!” the officials shouted at the end of his announcement.
Defense Minister Diego Molero, surrounded by top military officers, said the armed forces would defend the constitution and respect Chávez’s wishes.
Chávez had checked into the hospital on Feb. 18 for a course of chemotherapy after spending two months in Cuba, where in December he had undergone his fourth round of cancer surgery since June 2011.
The once ubiquitous symbol of Latin America’s “anti-imperialist” left disappeared from public view after he was flown to Cuba on Dec. 10, an unprecedented absence that fueled wave after wave of rumors.
The government had sent mixed signals about the president’s health for weeks, warning one day that he was battling for his life, yet insisting as recently as last weekend that he was still in charge and giving orders.
The opposition repeatedly accused the government of lying about the president’s condition.
A new election could offer another shot at the presidency to Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who lost to Chávez in October.
“This is not the time for differences. This is the time for unity, the time for peace,” he said, insisting he and Chávez were “adversaries, but never enemies.”
Luis Vicente León, director of the polling group Datanalisis, said the government will likely want to hold elections as early as possible “to take advantage electorally of the emotion generated by the president’s death.”
Chávez will be mourned by many of the country’s once-neglected poor, who revered the self-styled revolutionary for using the country’s oil riches to fund popular housing, health, food and education programs.
And like-minded Latin American leaders like Cuba’s Raúl Castro, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega lost a close friend who used his diplomatic muscle and cheap oil to shore up their rule.
World oil prices rose over the uncertainty following his death.
Chávez died five months after winning re-election, overcoming public frustration over a rising murder rate, regular blackouts and soaring inflation.
The opposition had accused Chávez of misusing public funds for his campaign and dominating the airwaves while forcing government workers to attend rallies through intimidation.
He missed his swearing-in for a new six-year term on Jan. 10, but the Supreme Court approved an indefinite delay.
Beginning with his first election win in 1998, Chávez had worked to consolidate his power and make his revolution “irreversible.”
But his policies drove a wedge into Venezuelan society, alienating the wealthy with expropriations while wooing the poor with social handouts.
Updated at 11:55 p.m. on Tuesday.