Venezuelans began seven days of painful and public mourning on Tuesday night after the announcement that their president, Hugo Chavez, died at the age of 58 after a long battle against cancer.
The country’s vice-president Nicolas Maduro — tipped as a likely successor — broke the news on Tuesday night, prompting a wave of grief on the nation’s streets.
“We have just received the most tragic and awful information. At 4.25 pm, President Hugo Chavez Frias died,” Maduro announced in a televised address, his voice choking. “It’s a moment of deep pain,” he said.
Chavez died at a military hospital in Caracas, the capital of the country he headed since 1999. As soon as the news was announced, supporters gathered at the city’s main square, Plaza Bolivar, and began chanting: “Chavez vive, la lucha sigue" — Chavez lives, the battle continues.”
People wearing red beret, the president was known for, sang a popular folk song with the words: “Those who die for life cannot be called dead.”
Messages of condolence came from many world leaders, perhaps the most significant was from the US President Barack Obama. He said: “At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government. As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the US remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law and respect for human rights.”
Chavez, the symbol of Latin American socialism, succumbed to a respiratory infection on Tuesday evening, 21 months after he first revealed he had a tumour. He had not been seen in public for three months since an emergency surgery in Cuba on December 11.
He will be given a state funeral in Caracas on Friday, likely to be attended by millions of supporters and leftwing leaders from across the globe.
His death will also trigger a presidential election, to be held within 30 days, to decide who controls the world’s greatest untapped reserves of oil. His designated successor, Maduro, is likely to face Henrique Capriles.
US diplomats expelled as ‘enemies’ blamed for cancer
Vice President Nicolas Maduro blamed ‘enemies’ of Venezuela for giving Chavez cancer and announced that two US diplomats would be expelled from the country for an alleged plot to destabilize the regime. “There's no doubt that Commandante Chavez’s health came under attack by the enemy,” Madura said. “The old enemies of our fatherland looked for a way to harm his health,” he added. However, hours later, the United States rejected Venezuela’s allegations of a conspiracy, saying it was absurd to assert Washington was somehow behind Chavez’s cancer.