Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dies at 58
BY FRANK BAJAK Associated Press
Wednesday, March 06, 2013
3/06/13 at 3:57 AM
President Hugo Chavez, the fiery populist who declared a socialist revolution in Venezuela, crusaded against U.S. influence and championed a leftist revival across Latin America, died Tuesday at age 58 after a nearly two-year bout with cancer.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, surrounded by other government officials, announced the death in a national television broadcast.
During more than 14 years in office, Chavez routinely challenged the status quo at home and internationally. He polarized Venezuelans with his confrontational and domineering style, yet was also a masterful communicator and strategist who tapped into Venezuelan nationalism to win broad support, particularly among the poor.
Chavez repeatedly proved himself a political survivor. As an army paratroop commander, he led a failed coup in 1992, then was pardoned and elected president in 1998. He survived a coup against his own presidency in 2002 and won re-election two more times.
The burly president electrified crowds with his booming voice, often wearing the bright red of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela or the fatigues and red beret of his army days. Before his struggle with cancer, he appeared on television often, talking for hours at a time.
Chavez used his country's vast oil wealth to launch social programs that include state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs. Poverty declined during Chavez's presidency amid a historic boom in oil earnings, but critics said he failed to use the windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars to develop the economy.
Inflation soared and the homicide rate rose to among the highest in the world.
Chavez underwent surgery in Cuba in June 2011 to remove what he said was a baseball-size tumor from his pelvic region, and the cancer returned repeatedly over the next 18 months.
Two months after his re-election in October, Chavez returned to Cuba again for cancer surgery. He was never seen again in public.
The government released photographs of Chavez on Feb. 15 and three days later announced that the president had returned to Venezuela to a military hospital in Caracas.
As president, Chavez said he hoped to fulfill Simon Bolivar's unrealized dream of uniting South America.
He was also inspired by Cuban leader Fidel Castro and took on the aging revolutionary's role as Washington's chief antagonist in the Western Hemisphere after Castro relinquished the presidency to his brother Raul in 2006.
Supporters saw Chavez as the latest in a colorful line of revolutionary legends, from Castro to Argentine-born Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Critics saw Chavez as a typical Latin American strongman who ruled through force of personality and showed disdain for democratic rules.
While Chavez trumpeted plans for communes and an egalitarian society, his soaring 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 economic controls.
Nonetheless, Chavez maintained a core of supporters who stayed loyal to their "comandante" until the end.
In 2002, he survived a short-lived coup, which turned Chavez more decidedly against the U.S. government, which had swiftly recognized the provisional leader who had briefly replaced him.
Original Print Headline: Hugo Chavez dies at 58
Tulsa firms felt pinch
Hugo Chavez led a push toward socialism in Venezuela that included the seizure of numerous energy assets once considered joint ventures with American companies. In 2009, the state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela seized gas compression facilities owned and operated by Tulsa-based Williams Cos. Inc.
One year later, the Chavez government took control of 11 drilling rigs idled by Helmerich & Payne Inc. The Tulsa-based contract drilling company had quit using the rigs because Venezuela was about $43 million behind in payments.
Williams and partner Exterran settled their dispute by selling their stakes in the gas compression plants to Petroleos for $200 million in March 2012. Helmerich & Payne filed a 2011 lawsuit in Washington, D.C., federal court seeking $32 million in repayment for its losses to the seizure.
ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips also sought compensation after Venezuela nationalized oil assets in the past decade.
Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez react after the vice president announced Chavez's death Tuesday in downtown Caracas. FERNANDO LLANO/Associated Press
Cuban President Fidel Castro (left) talks with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Barinas, Venezuela, on Oct. 28, 2000. Chavez was inspired by Castro and took on the aging revolutionary's role as Washington's chief antagonist in the Western Hemisphere after Castro relinquished the presidency to his brother Raul in 2006. Associated Press file