Death of Chavez leaves chasm
CARACAS — Some in anguish, some in fear, Venezuelans raced for home on Tuesday after the government announced the death of President Hugo Chavez, the firebrand socialist who led the nation for 14 years.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro's voice broke and tears ran down his face as he appeared on national television to announce that Chavez died at 4:25 p.m. local time (3:55 p.m EST) “after battling hard against an illness over nearly two years.”
He did not say what exactly killed Chavez, although the government announced the previous night that a new respiratory infection had severely weakened him.
“Let there be no weakness, no violence. Let there be no hate. In our hearts, there should only be one sentiment: Love. Love, peace and discipline,” Maduro said.
Across downtown Caracas, shops and restaurants began closing and Venezuelans hustled home, some breaking into a run.
Many had looks of anguish and incredulity on their faces.
“I feel a sorrow so big I can't speak,” said Yamilina Barrios, a 39-year-old clerk in the Industry Ministry, her face covered in tears. “I hope the country calms down and continues the work that he left us, continues in unity and the progress continues,” Barrios said.
Among the nervous was Maria Elena Lovera, a 45-year-old housewife.
“I want to go home. People are crazy and are way too upset.”
In the only immediately known incident of political violence, a group of masked, helmeted men on motorcycles, some brandishing revolvers, attacked about 40 students who had been protesting for more than a week near the Supreme Court building to demand more information about Chavez's health.
The attackers burned the students' tents and scattered their food moments after the death was announced.
“They burned everything we had,” said student leader Gaby Arellano. She said none of the attackers fired a shot but that she saw four with pistols.
Maduro called on Venezuelans to convene in the capital's Bolivar Square, named for 19th century independence hero Simon Bolivar, whom Chavez claimed as his chief inspiration.
The vice president called on the opposition to respect “the people's pain.”
Chavez leaves behind a socialist political movement firmly in control of the nation, but with some doubt about how new leadership will be formed.
Chavez's illness prevented him from taking the oath of office upon his re-election on Oct. 7 and, under the constitution, National Assembly chief Diosdado Cabello apparently would take over as interim president. But there was no sign of Cabello as Maduro announced Chavez's death.
The constitution says elections should be called in 30 days. Chavez specified that his supporters should back Maduro as his successor.
Venezuela's defense minister appeared on television to affirm that the military will remain loyal to the constitution.
Reactions to Chavez's death were as mixed, polemical and outsized as the leader was in life, with some saying his passing was a tragic loss and others calling it an opportunity for Venezuela to escape his long shadow. Seen as a hero by some for his anti-U.S. rhetoric and gifts of cut-rate oil, others considered him a bully.
A teary-eyed Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of Chavez's closest allies and most loyal disciples, said, “Chavez will continue to be an inspiration for all peoples who fight for their liberation.”
In Cuba, which has come to rely on Venezuela for billions of dollars in oil at preferential terms during Chavez's presidency, some worried the loss could have a negative effect on the island.
Relations with the United States were strained under Chavez.
President Obama issued a statement saying the United States reaffirms its support for the “Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.”
Some of the Venezuelans living in Florida reacted with cautious optimism that there will be change in their homeland following his death.
At a popular Miami restaurant, people began arriving with Venezuelan flags, cheering and crying out joyfully. Beneath the jubilation, though, was worry about what happens next.
An estimated 189,219 Venezuelan immigrants live in America, half of them Florida, according to U.S. Census figures. Many are anti-Chavez and left after he rose to power.