CARACAS -- Venezuelans crammed streets Tuesday night, weeping and chanting as they clutched pictures of Hugo Chávez, who prided himself on defeating his enemies during 14 years in power but was unable to conquer the cancer that haunted him for almost two years.
Fighting back tears, Vice President Nicolás Maduro said Chávez died at 4:25 p.m. local time and had given his life for the nation.
“In the midst of this intense pain and historic tragedy for our country, we ask all our compatriots to be vigilant of peace, love, respect and calm,” Maduro said.
As the news spread through Caracas, cars honked their horns and crowds gathered at plazas and in front of the Military Hospital where Chávez had spent his final days.
“I feel awful, terrible,” said Hernán Arcila, a 42-year-old construction worker who rushed to the city center after hearing the news. “It’s like losing a father.”
At Plaza Bolívar, an iconic square in the heart of Caracas, mourners chanted “Chávez lives! The struggle continues!”
The country’s Supreme Court, military and a parade of ministers took turns reassuring the stunned nation that the administration was unified and solid. Defense Minister Diego Molera said troops were on the streets to guarantee law and order, adding that there were no indications of unrest.
“You can count on your Armed Forces, which are of the people and for the people . . . to enforce the constitution,” he said.
Chávez’s death should trigger new elections within 30 days and many analysts expect Maduro — the president’s handpicked successor — to have an edge over potential rivals.
The opposition coalition, known as the MUD, has been meeting to pick a single candidate to take on the administration, but many expect the organization will settle on Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, who had a strong but losing showing against Chávez in October’s election.
Capriles said his thoughts were with Chávez’s family and his followers.
“In difficult moments, we must show our profound respect for our Venezuela,” he wrote on Twitter. “Unity of the Venezuelan family!”
Late Tuesday, Foreign Minister Elías Jaua said no one should doubt that new elections are coming.
“The government of Venezuela and all of the powers will do what the president said we must do: enforce the constitution,” he said.
The government declared seven days of mourning, and said Chávez’s body will be transported from the Military Hospital to the Military Academy early Wednesday. On Friday, he will be given a state funeral, and dozens of regional leaders are expected to attend.
“We’re hurt. We’re shattered by the passing of our brother and companion,” Bolivian President Evo Morales, a longtime ally, said as he wiped away tears. “My companion gave his entire life for the liberation of Venezuela and Latin America.”
Chávez used his nation’s vast oil wealth to build regional organizations — such as the ALBA bloc of socialist nations, and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, which includes every country in the hemisphere but the United States and Canada — to challenge what he saw as undo U.S. influence in the hemisphere.