President Chavez dies after long cancer bout
Caracas - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died Tuesday at amilitary hospital in Caracas, Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced with a cracking voice and tearful eyes."We have received the toughest and most tragic news we can convey to the people: commander Hugo Chavez has died at 4:25 pm (2055 GMT)this afternoon after battling the illness for almost two years," Maduro said at the hospital.
He called on Venezuelans to react peacefully, as a family. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost the October presidential election to Chavez, called for unity.
"My solidarity (goes) to all of President Hugo Chavez’s family and followers. We advocate unity among Venezuelans at this time," Capriles wrote on Twitter. "In difficult times we need to show our deep love and respect for our Venezuela." Chavez, 58, had been suffering from an unspecified form ofabdominal cancer since June 2011 and was never recovered since afourth surgery in mid-December in Havana. He returned February 18 to Caracas.
Chavez became gravely ill in recent days with a respiratory infection. Chavez’s remains were to be taken Wednesday to the Military Academy in Caracas, ahead of a state funeral Friday, Venezuelan daily El Universal reported online, citing Foreign Minister Elias Jaua.
Many Latin American leaders were planning to travel to Caracas.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff appeared close to tears as she described Chavez as "a great Latin American." "We recognize him as a great leader, an irreparable loss, andabove all a friend of Brazil, a friend of the Brazilian people," shesaid in Brasilia. "He will leave a vacuum in the heart, in the history and in the struggles of Latin America."
Rousseff, who cancelled a planned trip to Buenos Aires, and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, were bound Wednesday for Venezuela, ruling party Senator Lindbergh Farias announced.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and presidents Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Evo Morales of Bolivia were set to travel to Caracas, too.
US President Barack Obama called for improved relations with Venezuela, after many years of tension between Washington and Chavez.
"At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and itsinterest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government," Obama said.
"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."
In a lengthy catalogue of his record, non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) questioned Chavez’s" authoritarian legacy" and denounced the "dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees" during his rule.
"By his second full term in office, the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections had given the government freer in to intimidate, censor and prosecute Venezuelans who criticised the president or thwarted his political agenda," HRW said.
The NGO denounced Chavez’s "assault" on judicial independence and press freedoms, his rejection of human rights scrutiny and his close relationships with "abusive governments" in Iran and Syria and the former Libyan regime.
Haitian President Michel Martelly described Chavez as "a great friend of Haiti," noting that Venezuela has financed works in the poorest country in the Americas.
"We are certain that Venezuelans will know to come together in difficult times like these and move in peace and democracy toward the future," said Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States.
Chavez, who led a failed military coup in 1992 and became the democratically elected president in 1999, was unable to attend hisown inauguration for another six-year term in mid-January after winning re-election in October with 55 per cent of the vote.
Chavez spent his last days in the company of his daughters. Helast addressed Venezuelans on December 8, asking them to vote forMaduro in any future elections in case he was unable to recover.
National Assembly Speaker Diosdado Cabello is to take power until after a new presidential election, which is to be called. Seven days of official mourning were to be held.