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.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller called Chávez “a sincere, jovial, and a very vociferous and committed leader in the defense of the rights and welfare of the most marginalized and vulnerable in the society.”
“I will miss him dearly,” she said. “Long live my friend. Long live Mr. President. Gone but not forgotten.”
U.S. President Barack Obama was more circumspect.
“At this challenging time of President Hugo Chávez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government,” he said in a statement. “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.”
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said Chávez’s death presents an opportunity for Venezuelans to “emerge from this oppressive regime and regain their democracy and human rights.”
“Chávez misruled Venezuela with an iron grip on the government, economy and the courts as he routinely bullied the media and the opposition to deny the people of Venezuela their basic freedoms,” said Ros-Lehtinen, former chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Today his death marks the end of this tyrannical rule but the road to democracy for the Venezuelan people is still very much uncertain.”
Chávez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro had a tight and long-running relationship. Chávez supported the island’s economy with subsidized oil and it was there that he went to get his cancer treatment. On Tuesday, Cuba declared three days of mourning and called him “one of its most prominent sons.”
“Chávez is also Cuban!” the government said in a statement read on Cuban television. “He felt our pain and problems and did everything he could, with extraordinary generosity.”
Chávez first shot to fame in 1992 when he and other mid-ranking military officers tried to overthrow President Carlos Andrés Pérez. But the charismatic tank commander finally captured the presidency through the ballot box in 1999 and began rolling out social programs that made him a hero to the poor.
News of the death capped a chaotic day of heightened tensions in Venezuela, where Maduro accused U.S. diplomats of conspiring against the country and suggested Chávez’s enemies may have given him the disease.
During a cabinet and military meeting earlier Tuesday, Maduro accused U.S. Embassy Air Attaché Col. David Delmonaco of trying to infiltrate the armed forces.
“This official has taken on the task of looking for active Venezuelan military [officials] to propose projects to destabilize the armed forces,” Maduro said.
The U.S. State Department confirmed that Delmonaco and Devlin Kostal, the assistant air attaché, were both being expelled from the country.
The move drew a harsh rebuke from Washington.
“We completely reject the Venezuelan government’s claim that the United States is involved in any type of conspiracy to destabilize the Venezuelan government,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a statement. “Notwithstanding the significant differences between our governments, we continue to believe it important to seek a functional and more productive relationship with Venezuela based on issues of mutual interest. This fallacious assertion of inappropriate U.S. action leads us to conclude that, unfortunately, the current Venezuelan government is not interested in an improved relationship.”
But Maduro also used the occasion to dust off one of Chávez’s own theories: that a rash of presidential cancer in the region may have been part of a bioweapons program.
“We don’t have any doubts that the day will come when we can gather a scientific commission that will show that Commander Chávez was attacked with this illness,” Maduro said. “We have no doubt that our historic enemies have been trying to hurt President Chávez’s health.”
Ventrell said any suggestion that the U.S. was “somehow involved in causing President Chávez’s illness is absurd, and we definitively reject it.”
Chávez first announced he had cancer in June 2011, saying doctors in Cuba had removed a baseball sized tumor from his pelvic region. He underwent at least four surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy.
Chávez was last seen publically on Dec. 10, when he boarded the presidential aircraft to undergo his final surgery in Cuba. After the procedure, the administration said he developed a severe lung infection that required a tracheotomy and made it difficult for him to speak. On Feb 18, he was spirited back into the country, unannounced and under the cover of darkness. At the time, Maduro suggested his return was a sign that he was on the mend.
And many here thought El Comandante would bounce back like he had before.
Nicolas Pereira, a 40-year-old telecom worker, said that despite all the bad news he expected Chávez to survive.
“Hope,” he said, “is always the very last things to die.”
Miami Herald staff writers Carol Rosenberg and Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report from Miami.