A week of mourning has been declared in Venezuela after the death of Hugo Chavez. The army and police have been deployed to guarantee the peace.
Leaders in Venezuela have called for unity after Chavez's death. He ran 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 Mr Chavez had died “after battling hard against an illness over nearly two years”.
He did not say what had killed the 58-year-old, although the government had announced the previous night that a severe new respiratory infection had weakened him.
A few hours later, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua confirmed one of Mr Chavez’s final wishes. Mr Maduro would be interim president and then be the ruling party’s candidate to carry on Mr Chavez’s populist “revolution” in elections to be called within 30 days.
It was a day fraught with mixed signals, some foreboding and some violent. Just a few hours before announcing Chavez’s death, Mr Maduro made a virulent speech against enemies he claimed were trying to undermine Venezuelan democracy.
And he said two US military attaches had been expelled for trying to destabilise the nation. In announcing the death of the former army paratrooper who wielded Venezuela’s oil wealth to benefit the poor and win friends regionally, Mr Maduro shifted tone.
He called on Venezuelans to be “dignified heirs of the giant man” that Mr Chavez was.
“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.”
The government declared seven days of mourning and closed all schools and universities until next Monday.
All across downtown Caracas, shops and restaurants began to close and Venezuelans headed for home, some even breaking into a run.
Many people looked incredulous or anguished.
“I feel a sorrow so big I can’t speak,” said Yamilina Barrios, a 39-year-old clerk who works in the Industry Ministry, her face covered in tears. “He was the best this country had.”
Among the nervous was Maria Elena Lovera, a 45-year-old housewife, who said. “I want to go home. People are crazy and are way too upset.”
There were several incidents of political violence.
In one, 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 demanding the government give more information about Mr Chavez’s health.
After nightfall, several hundred people gathered at Bolivar Square, a symbolic place for Chavistas because it has a huge 30-foot-tall statue of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century independence hero who Mr Chavez claimed as his inspiration.
Mr Chavez leaves behind a political movement firmly in control of the nation, but with some doubt about how a new leadership will be formed.
His illness prevented him from taking the oath of office after he was re-elected to a new term on October 7 and the constitution says the speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, should take over as interim president under such circumstances.
But Mr Jaua said Mr Maduro would assume the rule as that was Mr Chavez’s will.
The man Mr Chavez defeated in October, the youthful Miranda state Governor Henrique Capriles, is widely expected to represent the opposition.
Venezuela’s defence minister appeared on television to announce that the military will remain loyal to the constitution in the wake of Mr Chavez’s death.
Admiral Diego Molero appealed for “unity, tranquility and understanding” among Venezuelans.
Mr Chavez has run Venezuela for more than 14 years as a virtual one-man show, gradually placing all state institutions under his personal control.
But the former army paratroop commander, who rose to fame by launching a failed 1992 coup, never groomed a successor with his same kind of force of personality.
He had neither been seen nor heard from, except for photos released in mid-February, since submitting to a fourth round of surgery in Cuba on December 11 for an unspecified cancer in the pelvic area. It was first diagnosed in June 2011.
The government said Mr Chavez returned home on February 18 and was confined to the military hospital since.
President Barack Obama promised American support for the Venezuelan people and a constructive relationship with their government.
He said in a statement that Mr Chavez’s death marks a challenging time for Venezuela, and that the US is committed to promoting democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law.
Hollywood film director Oliver Stone, a produced a film about Mr Chavez and his leftist allies, said: “Hated by the entrenched classes, Hugo Chavez will live forever in history. My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned.”
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