Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Is Dead at 58

PHOTO:  Venezuelas President Hugo Chavez speaks to soldiers.
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Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez died today at 4:25 p.m., Caracas time, according to Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro. He was 58.

The socialist leader, whose politics deeply polarized his nation, had been battling cancer since June 2011, when a tumor was found in his pelvic area.

But Chávez had never fully disclosed details about his health condition, leaving his people in the dark about how close he was to death's doorstep.

See Also: Venezuelan Govt. Suggests Chavez Was Killed by "Enemies"

News of his death shocked his nation of 25 million, which currently holds the world's largest proven oil reserves.

Hugo Chávez was revered by Venezuela's poor, who considered him one of their own.

The Venezuelan leader was born in 1954, to two humble school teachers in the small town of Sabaneta.

Biographers of Chávez say that the president was mostly raised by his grandmother, Rosa Chávez and grew up learning about revolutionary heroes from the Llanos, a vast expanse of flatlands that make up Venezuela's cowboy country.

At age 17, Chávez decided to enlist in Venezuela's military academy, which forced him to move from tranquil Sabaneta to the capital city of Caracas, a town that was growing rapidly in the 1970s thanks to the first global spike in oil prices.

As a young soldier, he was stationed in several parts of the country, and in the mid-1970s, he completed a stint with a unit that fought against leftist guerrillas in the Andes mountains.

Chávez would later say that his experiences as a soldier encouraged him to form the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement (MRB in Spanish), an underground group of nationalist officers who were unhappy with the high poverty rates in oil-rich Venezuela and the corrupt practices of the country's political leaders. The group was founded in 1983, on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolívar. Nine years later in 1992, several of its members would help Chávez launch a coup attempt, which sought to overthrow President Carlos Andrés Pérez, and overturn his neoliberal economic policies.

The coup failed, as critical elements of the military stayed loyal to Pérez.

But as one of the conditions to surrender, Chávez requested that government forces allow him to address the nation on TV, to explain his actions.

The government conceded, requesting also that Chávez tell rebellious soldiers elsewhere in the country to lay down their weapons.

But the brief TV appearance also gave Chávez the opportunity to become known across the nation, and in a strange way, it is what launched his political career.

"For the moment, our objectives in Caracas have not been achieved," a stoic Chávez said in front of TV cameras. The phrase "for the moment" became a slogan amongst his growing group of followers.

Chávez was put in jail. But he was pardoned by President Rafael Caldera, and in 1998, just six years after his failed coup attempt, he won the Venezuelan presidency by a landslide in an election where voters punished the country's traditional parties.

During his first term in office, Chávez took bold decisions aimed at reforming Venezuela and changing its political class.

He changed the country's official name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (after Simón Bolívar). He dissolved Congress, and set up a constitutional assembly that changed Venezuela's constitution within two years and called for new elections in 2000, which Chávez easily won.

Chávez attempted to fight poverty and high inflation by imposing price controls, and nationalizing key sectors of the Venezuelan economy. He expanded the number of judges on Venezuela's supreme court and packed it with his supporters in order to make such reforms legally possible.

But these tactics did not go well with Venezuela's business elite, which saw its economic freedoms limited. In April 2002, a coalition of business associations and rebellious officers attempted to oust Chávez through a coup, which was executed in the midst of large protests against the Chávez government that were mostly attended by members of the country's middle class.

But Chávez survived the coup attempt, thanks to his support among the poor, and also because some key officers stayed loyal to the Venezuelan president.

In the following years, Chávez deepened state control over the economy and expanded social programs, as oil prices once again rose to historic levels.

He survived a referendum against his rule, and later launched a referendum of his own in which voters approved constitutional changes that eliminated presidential term limits in Venezuela.

Chávez was accused of using Venezuela's oil money to win elections, increasing government spending dramatically each time presidential elections were on the horizon.

The Venezuelan leader also used oil money to back leftist governments in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Argentina. He financed social projects in those countries, and helped them to pay their debts.

Chávez backed the Castro regime in Cuba with subsidized oil shipments that were crucial for the island's economy.

As he established himself as one of Latin America's most influential leaders, Chávez also became an outspoken critic of the U.S. government, which he sometimes referred to simply as "the empire."

Chávez blasted the U.S. for backing free market economic policies around the world, claiming that they benefited big business, and not the global poor.

He accused political opponents at home of being "servants" of the empire and spoke out aggressively against the invasion of Iraq.

But Chávez never halted Venezuelan oil shipments to the U.S., which meant that his government derived much of its income from selling oil to the country that it criticized the most.

At home, Chávez faced protests over media censorship after he refused to renew the broadcasting license of RCTV, an opposition leaning TV station that was accused of participating in the 2002 coup attempt.

His government was also criticized for high levels of corruption, which were reflected in Venezuela's low standings in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

These problems affected the average Venezuelan and hurt Chávez's popularity. But the socialist leader still managed to get elected to a fourth term in office in 2012, winning reelection with 55 percent of the vote.

A large number of Venezuelans benefited from the social programs put in place by Chávez, and many saw the socialist leader as the first president that truly cared for the country's poor.

Today, thousands of people are mourning his death in the streets of Caracas, and other Venezuelan cities, while others hold their breath and hope for a peaceful transition in Venezuela, which has not been ruled by anyone else since 1998.

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