Chavez was raised by his grandmother in a house with a mud floor in rural Venezuela and evoked almost religious passion among poor supporters who loved his folksy charm, common touch and determination to put the nation’s oil wealth at their service.
He burst onto the national scene by leading an attempted coup in 1992. It failed and he was imprisoned, but he then formed a political party on his release two years later and swept to power in a 1998 election.
It was the first of four presidential election victories, built on widespread support among the poor.
But Chavez alienated investors with waves of takeovers and strict currency controls, often bullied his rivals, and disappointed some followers who say he focused too much on ideological issues at the expense of day-to-day problems such power cuts, high inflation and crime.
Chavez built a highly centralized political system around his larger-than-life image and his tireless, micro-managing style created something close to a personality cult. He was particularly adept at exploiting divisions within a fractious opposition.
Chavez was briefly toppled in a coup in 2002, but returned triumphantly after his supporters took to the streets.
Apparently realizing the end was nigh, Chavez named Nicholas Maduro his successor in December, just before his fourth operation, which followed months of grueling chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
On February 18, Chavez made a surprise pre-dawn return from Cuba and was taken to a ninth-floor suite of a military hospital in Caracas, surrounded by tight security.
The government published a handful of pictures of Chavez lying in a hospital bed while he was still in Havana – the only time he was seen since the latest surgery. Supporters held tearful vigils around the country to pray for his recovery.
Maduro, 50, will now focus on marshalling support from Chavez’s diverse coalition, which includes leftist ideologues, businessmen, and radical armed groups called “colectivos”.
Seeking to knock down rumors of tensions at the top of the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV), Maduro has stressed the unity between him and Diosdado Cabello, a powerful former army buddy of Chavez who heads the National Assembly.
Maduro is a former bus driver who rose from union activist to foreign minister and then to president-in-waiting. He won Chavez’s confidence by meticulously echoing his vitriolic rhetoric and never airing a dissenting opinion.
Maduro has mimicked Chavez’s rabble-rousing style in appearances in recent weeks, peppering speeches with insults aimed at adversaries.
Capriles, Maduro’s likely opponent, is a 40-year-old governor of Miranda state who led a hard-fought campaign against Chavez in the October election.
There are clear ideological differences between the 20 or so groups in the opposition’s Democratic Unity coalition and without their enmity to Chavez to bind them, the alliance could splinter.
Until recently, polls had shown Capriles would beat any of Chavez’s proteges. But the naming of Maduro as Chavez’s heir, and the outpouring of emotion that will accompany Chavez’s death, have changed the picture.
A survey carried out by local pollster Hinterlaces between January 30 and February 9 gave Maduro 50-percent support, compared to 36 percent for Capriles.
Wall Street investors, who would like to see a more pro-business government in Caracas but have been keen buyers of high-yielding Venezuelan bonds, will be watching closely.
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