Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died yesterday at the age of 58 in a Caracas military hospital.
The democratically elected leader of the South American country had been struggling for the last several months with cancer the form of which was never fully disclosed.
While his death will end months of suspense that has cast a shadow of uncertainty across both his country and its leftist allies in the region it now also plunges one of the world’s leading petro-nations into what is certain to be pitched political struggle the outcome of which remains uncertain.
After winning a fourth term as president last October, Mr Chavez abruptly declared on 10 December last year that he was once again in the grip of the cancer that was first diagnosed in July 2011. The next day, after a tearful national television broadcast, he vanished to Havana, Cuba, for treatment. He was never to be seen publicly again.
The death was announced on national television by Vice President Nicholas Maduro, who is now expected to fight in elections to succeed him. Mr Chavez, he told a shocked nation, had died “after battling a tough illness for nearly two years”.
The prolonged absence of Mr Chavez had already caused political turmoil, notably since being unable attend his own inauguration in Caracas in January. Against furious remonstrations from the opposition, the government insisted at the time that the leader was still in charge of the nation from his hospital bed in Havana and he remained president in spite of not actually being sworn in for a new term.
Opposition patience with this arrangement – and with the relative lack of clear information of what the actual condition of the Mr Chavez was – had been wearing extremely thin. In mid-February the government allowed the first pictures of Mr Chavez to be published that showed him in his hospital cot being attended to by two of his daughters.
Shortly thereafter he was flown in the dead of night to Caracas where he was installed in the main military hospital. It seems now that he was moved so he could at die on his own soil.
The constitution now demands that elections be held across the country within 30 days to elect a new president and Vice President Maduro and his allies will doubtless do what they can to capitalise on the sympathy that the passing of Mr Chavez will elicit in the population. The national grieving process is likely to be a fevered process that will culminate with a funeral accompanied by giant public demonstrations of sorrow.
His death comes, however, at a time of deep uncertainty for Venezuela. Oil prices have fluctuation while inflation and the rate of violent crime has soared to levels not seen in other Latin American countries. Mr Chavez leaves a population riven down the middle and most of the support for Maduro is likely to come from the poorer masses who have benefited from huge government health, housing and education programmes.
While Mr Maduro will doubtless proclaim his intention to prolong and build on the so-called Bolivarian socialist revolution that was begun by Mr Chavez upon his taking power, the opposition has a more viable leader to run against him that might have been the case before. He is Henrique Capriles, a provincial governor, who built a wide base of support fighting in the last presidential contest last summer.
Between now and the election the leader of the national congress, Diosdado Cabello, would normally be expected to assume the interim presidency.
The announcement came just hours after Mr Maduro announced the government had expelled two US diplomats from the country suggesting that the US and its allies had been responsible for Mr Chavez contracting cancer.
The vice president said “we have no doubt” that Chavez’s cancer had been somehow induced by foul play by “the historical enemies of our homeland”.
He compared the situation to the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, claiming Arafat was “inoculated with an illness.”