Chávez’s persecution of foes and rising crime led to a wave of emigration. More than 70,000 Venezuelans are thought to live in South Florida.
Despite his troubles at home, Chávez was able to swap the nation’s oil wealth for global influence. In 2001, Venezuela and Cuba launched the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of our Americas, or ALBA, which was joined by Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, and other left-leaning nations.
In 2004, Venezuela became a founding member of the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR. In December 2011, Chávez played host to the hemisphere’s leaders as they formed the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. The organization included every nation in the region except the United States and Canada and Chávez said he hoped it would ultimately replace the Organization of American States, which he accused of being a U.S. pawn.
As Chávez’s regional influence grew, he became increasingly combative with the United States, calling President George W. Bush “Mr. Danger” and railing against the “empire” of the north. The U.S. has not had an ambassador in Venezuela since 2008.
Chávez also picked fights with the United States’ key ally in the region, Colombia. After former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe accused Chávez of providing refuge to FARC guerrillas, and raided a FARC camp in Ecuador in 2008, Chávez broke off diplomatic ties and threatened to invade the nation. Relations between the neighbors improved when Juan Manuel Santos assumed the Colombian presidency in 2010.
Back on the home front, Chávez won another decisive victory in 2009, when he pushed through a referendum that eliminated term limits on the presidency. After the win, he taunted the opposition, vowing to stay in power until 2031.
“I have the will to live until then and beyond,” he said on national television in 2011, as he tried to reassure voters that he had beat the cancer. “And I will be here on the frontlines with all of you.”
As his power grew, so did his antics. Chávez often broke into song and told jokes during his weekly television program Alo Presidente and preempted national broadcasts with hours’ long cabinet meetings. In 2010, all broadcasters were forced to show images of Chávez helping exhume the bones of his hero, Latin American Liberator Simon Bolivár, on live television.
Chávez’s obsession with communication also led him to embrace Twitter. By the time he died, he had more than four million followers — more than any other sitting president except Barack Obama.
The first signs of health problems arose during a trip to Havana in June, 2011, when doctors found a “baseball-sized” cancerous abscess in his “abdominal region.” In one of the most sullen moments of his career, in June 2011, Chávez announced to the country that he had cancer. Looking pale and morose, he likened the disease to the times he spent in jail in 1992, after his failed coup, and 2002, when he was briefly toppled.
Standing at a podium in Cuba, a gaunt-looking Chávez said he had asked God and Bolivár for the chance to talk to Venezuela, not from another “dark cave or a night without stars,” but “from this steep path, where I am coming out of another abyss, illuminated by the morning sun. I think we’ve made it.”
Chávez never confirmed what type of cancer it was, but independent doctors have said the symptoms were consistent with a sarcoma — a diagnosis that Chávez denied. Over the ensuing months, as he traveled to Cuba for chemotherapy, radiation and other treatments, Chávez lost his hair, became bloated and limited his public appearances. The man who was fond of pressing flesh on the street and governing on live television was forced to be reclusive.
In February 2012, he announced that he had relapsed and returned to Cuba for treatment. Four months later, he said that CT scans and an MRI had shown that he was in remission. And on June 11, Chávez officially launched his reelection bid in front of tens of thousands of supporters that recalled healthier times. Although his face was bloated, he sang, danced and gave an almost three-hour speech.
But after beating his rival by 11 points, Chávez became reclusive as rumors about his health began to swirl. In December, he announced that his cancer had returned and asked the nation to rally behind Vice President Maduro if new elections were required. On Dec. 10 he boarded the plane for Cuba.
The government said the ensuing surgery was plagued with problems, including hemorrhaging and a respiratory infection. But on Feb. 18, Chávez was spirited back into the country, unannounced, during the night. The man who craved and dominated the spotlight spent his final days in the Military Hospital.