Hugo Chavez, fiery Venezuelan leader, dies at 58

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Hugo

Chavez was a fighter. The former paratroop commander and fiery populist

waged continual

battle for his socialist ideals and outsmarted his rivals time and

again, defeating a coup attempt, winning re-election three

times and using his country's vast oil wealth to his political

advantage.

A self-described "subversive," Chavez fashioned himself after the 19th Century independence leader Simon Bolivar and renamed

his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

He called himself a "humble soldier" in a battle for socialism and against U.S. hegemony. He thrived on confrontation with

Washington and his political opponents at home, and used those conflicts to rally his followers.

Almost the only adversary it seemed he couldn't beat was cancer.

During more than 14 years in office, his leftist politics and grandiose style polarized Venezuelans. The barrel-chested leader

electrified crowds with his booming voice, and won admiration among the poor with government social programs and a folksy,

nationalistic style.

His opponents seethed at the larger-than-life character who demonized them on television and ordered the expropriation of

farms and businesses. Many in the middle class cringed at his bombast and complained about rising crime, soaring inflation

and government economic controls.

Before his struggle with cancer, he appeared

on television almost daily, frequently speaking for hours and breaking

into song

or philosophical discourse. He often wore the bright red of his

United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or the fatigues and red

beret of his army days. He had donned the same uniform in 1992

while leading an ill-fated coup attempt that first landed him

in jail and then launched his political career.

The rest of the world watched as the country with the world's biggest proven oil reserves took a turn to the left under its

unconventional leader, who considered himself above all else a revolutionary.

"I'm still a subversive," the president told The Associated Press in a 2007 interview, recalling his days as a rebel soldier.

"I think the entire world has to be subverted."

Chavez was a master communicator and savvy political strategist, and managed to turn his struggle against cancer into a rallying

cry, until the illness finally defeated him.

He died Tuesday in Caracas at 4:25 local time after his prolonged illness.

From the start, Chavez billed himself as the

heir of Simon Bolivar, who led much of South America to independence.

He often

spoke beneath a portrait of Bolivar and presented replicas of the

liberator's sword to allies. He built a soaring mausoleum

in Caracas to house the remains of "El Libertador."

Chavez also was inspired by his mentor Fidel

Castro and took on the Cuban leader's role as Washington's chief

antagonist in

the Western Hemisphere after the ailing Castro turned over the

presidency to his brother Raul in 2006. Like Castro, Chavez

vilified U.S.-style capitalism while forming alliances throughout

Latin America and with distant powers such as Russia, China

and Iran.

Supporters eagerly raised Chavez to the

pantheon of revolutionary legends ranging from Castro to Argentine-born

rebel Ernesto

"Che" Guevara. Chavez nurtured that cult of personality, and even

as he stayed out of sight for long stretches fighting cancer,

his out-sized image appeared on buildings and billboard throughout

Venezuela. The airwaves boomed with his baritone mantra:

"I am a nation." Supporters carried posters and wore masks of his

eyes, chanting, "I am Chavez."

In the battles Chavez waged at home and abroad, he captivated his base by championing his country's poor.

"This is the path: the hard, long path, filled with doubts, filled with errors, filled with bitterness, but this is the path,"

Chavez told his backers in 2011. "The path is this: socialism."

He invested Venezuela's oil wealth into

social programs including state-run food markets, cash benefits for poor

families,

free health clinics and education programs. Chavez also organized

poor neighborhoods into community councils that aided his

party's political machine.

Official statistics showed poverty rates declined from 50 percent at the beginning of Chavez's first term in 1999 to 32 percent

in the second half of 2011.

Chavez also won support through sheer charisma and a flair for drama.

He ordered Bolivar's sword removed from the Central Bank to unsheathe at key moments, and once raised it before militia troops

urging them to be ready to "give your lives, if you have to, for the Bolivarian Revolution!"

On television, he would lambast his opponents as "oligarchs," scold his aides, tell jokes, reminisce about his childhood,

lecture Venezuelans on socialism and make sudden announcements, such as expelling the U.S. ambassador or ordering tanks to

Venezuela's border with Colombia. Sometimes he would burst into baritone renditions of folk songs.

Chavez carried his in-your-face style to the world stage as well. In a 2006 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he called

President George W. Bush the devil, saying the podium reeked of sulfur after the U.S. president's address.

At a summit in 2007, he repeatedly called Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a fascist, prompting Spain's King Juan Carlos

to snap at Chavez, "Why don't you shut up?"

Critics saw Chavez as a typical Latin

American caudillo, a strongman who ruled through force of personality

and showed disdain

for democratic rules. Chavez concentrated power in his hands as

his allies dominated the congress and justices seen as doing

his bidding controlled the Supreme Court.

Chavez insisted Venezuela remained a vibrant

democracy and denied trying to restrict free speech. But some opponents

faced

criminal charges and were driven into exile. Chavez's government

forced one opposition-aligned television channel, RCTV, off

the air by refusing to renew its license.

While Chavez trumpeted plans for communes

and an egalitarian society, his rhetoric regularly conflicted with

reality. Despite

government seizures of companies and farmland, the balance between

Venezuela's public and private sectors changed little during

his presidency. And even as the poor saw their incomes rise, those

gains were blunted while the country's currency weakened

amid the economic controls he imposed.

Nonetheless, Chavez maintained a core of supporters who stayed loyal to their "comandante" until the end.

"Chavez masterfully exploits the

disenchantment of people who feel excluded ... and he feeds on

controversy whenever he can,"

Cristina Marcano and Alberto Barrera Tyszka wrote in their book

"Hugo Chavez: The Definitive Biography of Venezuela's Controversial

President."

Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias was born on July 28, 1954, in the rural town of Sabaneta in Venezuela's western plains. He was the

son of a schoolteacher father and was the second of six brothers. His mother was also a schoolteacher who met her husband

at age 16.

Hugo and his older brother Adan grew up with their grandmother, Rosa Ines, in a home with a dirt floor, mud walls and a roof

made of palm fronds.

Chavez was a fine baseball player and hoped he might one day pitch in the U.S. major leagues. When he joined the military

at age 17, he aimed to keep honing his baseball skills in the capital.

But between his army duties and drills, the young soldier immersed himself in the history of Bolivar and other Venezuelan

heroes who had overthrown Spanish rule, and his political ideas began to take shape.

Chavez burst into public view in 1992 as a

paratroop commander leading a military rebellion that brought tanks to

the presidential

palace. The coup collapsed and the plotters were imprisoned.

When Chavez was allowed to speak on television, he said his movement had only failed "for now." Chavez's short speech, and

especially those two defiant words, seared him into the memory of Venezuelans and became a springboard for his career.

President Rafael Caldera, long an advocate of political reconciliation, dropped charges against Chavez and other coup plotters

in 1994 and released them from prison.

Chavez then organized a new political party

and ran for president in 1998, pledging to clean up Venezuela's

entrenched corruption

and shatter its traditional two-party system. At age 44, he became

the country's youngest president in four decades of democracy

with 56 percent of the vote.

After he took office on Feb. 2, 1999, Chavez

called for a new constitution, and an assembly filled with his allies

drafted

the document. Among various changes, it lengthened presidential

terms from five years to six and changed the country's name

to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Chavez was re-elected in 2000 in an election called under the new constitution. His increasingly confrontational style and

close ties to Cuba, however, disenchanted many of the middle-class supporters who had voted for him, and the next several

years saw bold attempts by opponents to dislodge him from power.

In 2002, he survived a short-lived coup, which began after large anti-Chavez street protests ended in shootings and bloodshed.

Dissident military officers alarmed by Chavez's growing ties to Cuba detained the president and announced he had resigned.

But within two days, he returned to power with the help of military loyalists amid massive protests by his supporters.

Chavez emerged a stronger president. He defeated an opposition-led strike that paralyzed the country's oil industry and fired

thousands of state oil company employees.

The coup also turned Chavez more decidedly

against the U.S. government, which had swiftly recognized the

provisional leader

who briefly replaced him. He created political and trade alliances

that excluded the U.S., and he cozied up to Iran and Syria

in large part, it seemed, due to their shared antagonism toward

the U.S. government.

Despite the souring relationship, Chavez kept selling the bulk of Venezuela's oil to the United States.

By 2005, Chavez was espousing a new, vaguely defined "21st-century socialism." Yet the agenda didn't involve a sudden overhaul

to the country's economic order, and some businesspeople continued to prosper. Those with lucrative ties to the government

came to be known as the "Bolivarian bourgeoisie."

After easily winning re-election in 2006,

Chavez began calling for a "multi-polar world" free of U.S. domination,

part of

an expanded international agenda. He boosted oil shipments to

China, set up joint factories with Iran to produce tractors

and cars, and sealed arms deals with Russia for assault rifles,

helicopters and fighter jets. He focused on building alliances

throughout Latin America and injected new energy into the region's

left. Allies were elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina

and other countries.

Chavez also cemented relationships with island countries in the Caribbean by selling them oil on preferential terms while

severing ties with Israel, supporting the Palestinian cause and backing Iran's right to a nuclear energy program.

All the while, Chavez emphasized that it was necessary to prepare for any potential conflict with the "empire," his term for

the United States.

He told the AP in 2007 that he loved the movie "Gladiator."

"It's confronting the empire, and confronting evil. ... And you end up relating to that gladiator," Chavez said as he drove

across Venezuela's southern plains.

He said he felt a deep connection to those plains where he grew up, and that when died he hoped to be buried in the savanna.

"A man from the plains, from these great open spaces ... tends to be a nomad, tends not to see barriers. You don't see barriers

from childhood on. What you see is the horizon," Chavez said.

Chavez wasn't shy about flaunting his government's achievements, such as free health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors, new

public housing and laptops for needy children.

But even Chavez acknowledged in 2011 that one of his government's greatest weaknesses was a "lack of efficiency." He called

it "a big error that many times has put in danger the government's policies."

Running a revolution ultimately left little

time for a personal life. His second marriage, to journalist Marisabel

Rodriguez,

deteriorated in the early years of his presidency, and they

divorced in 2004. In addition to their one daughter, Rosines,

Chavez had three children from his first marriage, which ended

before he ran for office. His daughters Maria and Rosa often

appeared at his side at official events and during his trips.

Chavez acknowledged after he was diagnosed

with cancer in June 2011 that he had recklessly neglected his health. He

had taken

to staying up late and drinking as many as 40 cups of coffee a

day. He regularly summoned his Cabinet ministers to the presidential

palace late at night.

Even as he appeared with head shaved while undergoing chemotherapy, he never revealed the exact location of tumors that were

removed from his pelvic region, or the exact type of cancer.

Chavez exerted himself for one final

election campaign in 2012 after saying tests showed he was cancer-free,

and defeated

younger challenger Henrique Capriles. With another six-year term

in hand, he promised to keep pressing for revolutionary changes.

But two months later, he went to Cuba for a fourth cancer-related surgery, blowing a kiss to his country as he boarded the

plane.

After a 10-week absence, the government announced that Chavez had returned to Venezuela and was being treated at a military

hospital in Caracas. He was never seen again in public.

In his final years, Chavez frequently said Venezuela was well on its way toward socialism, and at least in his mind, there

was no turning back.

His political movement, however, was mostly a one-man phenomenon. Only three days before his final surgery, Chavez named Vice

President Nicolas Maduro as his chosen successor.

Now, it will be up to Venezuelans to determine whether the Chavismo movement can survive, and how it will evolve, without

the leader who inspired it.