Girish Gupta, Special for USA TODAY
CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the socialist leader who assailed U.S. influence in Latin America in his campaign against capitalism and democratic freedoms, died Tuesday. He was 58.
Chávez succumbed to cancer after months of treatments in Cuba, whose communist leaders he admired and propped up with cheap Venezuelan oil.
In power for 14 years, Chávez used oil money and vitriol to spread his "Bolivarian revolution" to neighboring states, playing a role in bolstering leftward turns in Ecuador and Bolivia and backing revolutionaries in Colombia. He hectored the United States often, belittling its leaders and cozying up to its adversaries.
In Venezuela, Chávez was a hero to impoverished villagers who had never shared in the country's oil wealth and benefited from housing improvements and health clinics. Detractors saw him as a dictator, packing the oil industry with incompetent cronies, repressing political opponents and ruining Venezuela's attempts to modernize and democratize.
Chávez dismantled Venezuela's democratic political system, rewrote the country's constitution in his favor, clamped down on freedom of expression and tried to spread his version of socialism throughout the continent. Some scholars said his claim to be working for the poor rang hollow.
"He deserves credit for putting his finger on a legitimate grievance in Venezuela about social exclusion and injustice," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. However, "Chávez will be remembered as a leader who squandered a rare opportunity to transform his country in a positive way."
Chávez was born to schoolteacher parents in July 1954. As a young man, he entered the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences and joined the army when leftists were pushing for radical alternatives to growing poverty. A decline in oil prices in the 1980s caused a drop in social spending and riots in which hundreds died, and Chávez drifted toward left-wing groups outside the military that supported a violent takeover of the government.
In 1992, Chávez, a lieutenant colonel, attempted a coup with others but failed, and he was jailed until 1994. Upon release, he ran for president and won on a vow to end corruption. Faced with strong political opposition, Chávez used referendums to strengthen his power, such as increasing the seats on the Supreme Court to pack it with his loyalists.
In 2002, military officers pushed Chávez out of office briefly after he ordered a crackdown on political opponents. Thousands of workers at the state oil company, PDVSA, went on strike to protest the crackdown and were fired as Chávez solidified control over the agency and installed supporters.
Chávez won the allegiance of the poor by sending thousands of Cuban-trained doctors into rural areas, but the middle class and others chafed at his state seizure of industries, banks and private farmland and repression of political and media freedoms. Rising oil prices gave him the money to lavish on supporters.
Such moves brought criticism from the United States, but poor Venezuelans kept him in power at election time.
"Chávez is Venezuela, that's the truth. The revolution will always be felt on the streets," said Gloria Torres, 50, who had organized prayer meetings for Chávez as he was undergoing cancer treatments.
A sizable portion of Venezuelan society detested Chávez. They seethed as he abolished presidential term limits in 2009 and conducted hours-long television appearances that Venezuelan media were forced to air. He shut down media outlets he deemed too critical of his government. His political opponents were too fragmented to mount a serious challenge.
"Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan state media infrastructure unabashedly (used) state resources as part of a re-election campaign," said Roberto Velásquez, communication director of Citizen Monitoring, a Caracas-based non-governmental organization (NGO).
Chávez floated on both rhetoric and huge oil reserves that were determined in 2011 to be greater even than Saudi Arabia's. But the Venezuelan economy buckled under Chavez's policies. Toward the end of his tenure, inflation was at 30%. Food shortages were common, and even fuel was rationed because of Chávez's meddling with PDVSA.
His state seizure of the facilities of major U.S. and foreign companies and reneging on oil rights contracts damaged investor confidence in the country and caused a drop in foreign investment.
"Nationalizations, price controls, exchange controls, hostile labor legislation, real exchange rate appreciation, shortage of dollars. That's the main legacy," said Boris Segura of investment bank Nomura in New York. "Chávez has not fulfilled the main promise when he was elected, which was to diversify Venezuela from oil."
A number of countries in Latin America welcomed Chávez's "Bolivarian revolution," named for the 19th-century revolutionary Simón Bolivar. He encouraged and supported Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Chávez emerged from the shadow of mentor Fidel Castro of Cuba, turning Venezuela into a lifeline to the communist island by furnishing it with billions of dollars every year. Once-prosperous ties between Venezuela and Colombia became strained as evidence emerged that Chávez had supported the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the leftist rebels who were fighting paramilitaries in Colombia for control.
Chávez's anti-American vitriol heightened during the U.S. presidency of George W. Bush. "The devil came here yesterday," Chávez said of Bush while theatrically sniffing the air at the United Nations in 2006. "It smells of sulfur still."
The relationship with Washington was exacerbated by Chávez's alliances with some of the world's most notorious leaders. Venezuela hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supported Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
"The troubles Chávez has caused won't end immediately with his passing, because Chávez has run the Venezuelan economy and political system into the ground, and his cronies will be trying to preserve the corrupt system which benefits them," said Carl Meacham, a senior Republican aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Some Latin America leaders said Chávez failed to use his popularity to unify Venezuelans and improve their lives, turning instead to typical caudillo tactics that have hobbled advancement in post-colonial Latin America.
Shifter cited former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who helped make Brazil a leader among the world's emerging economies without resorting to authoritarianism.
"As a measure of Chávez's declining influence, it is notable that, when he ran for president of Peru in 2006, Ollanta Humala proudly associated himself with Chávez, but then distanced himself from Chávez when he realized it was no longer politically advantageous," Shifter said.
In 2012, Chávez spoke to reporters as he prepared to leave for Havana to undergo more cancer treatments, having arrived at the airport in Caracas in a motorcade vehicle affixed with an image of Jesus Christ.
"I dreamt a while ago of Christ who came and said, 'Chávez, rise. It is not time to die. It's time to live,'" he said as he prepared to board a plane. "Independent of my personal destiny, this revolution already has its own momentum and will not be stopped."