Hugo Chavez, fiery Venezuelan leader, dies at 58

Wednesday - 3/6/2013, 3:08am EST

FILE - In this file photo released on Feb. 15, 2013 by Miraflores Presidential Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, center, poses for a photo with his daughters, Maria Gabriela, left, and Rosa Virginia at an unknown location in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced on Tuesday, March 5, 2013 that Chavez has died. Chavez, 58, was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011. (AP Photo/Miraflores Presidential Press Office, File)

FRANK BAJAK
Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- President Hugo Chavez was a former paratroop commander and self-styled "subversive" who waged continual battle for his socialist ideals. He bedeviled the United States and outsmarted his rivals time and again, while using Venezuela's vast oil wealth to his political advantage.

Chavez led one coup attempt, defeated another and was re-elected three times. Almost the only adversary it seemed he couldn't beat was cancer. He died Tuesday in Caracas at age 58, two years after he was first diagnosed.

The son of schoolteachers, he rose from poverty in a dirt-floor, mud-walled house, a "humble soldier" in the battle for socialism. He fashioned himself after 19th-century independence leader Simon Bolivar and renamed his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

During more than 14 years in office, his leftist politics and grandiose style polarized Venezuelans. The barrel-chested leader electrified crowds with his booming voice, and won admiration among the poor with government social programs and a folksy, nationalistic style.

Opponents seethed at the larger-than-life character who demonized them on television and ordered the expropriation of farms and businesses. Many in the middle class cringed at his bombast and complained about rising crime, soaring inflation and government economic controls.

Chavez used his country's oil wealth to launch social programs that included state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs. While poverty declined during his presidency amid a historic boom in oil earnings, critics said he failed to use the windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars to develop the country's economy.

Inflation soared and the homicide rate rose to among the highest in the world

Before his struggle with cancer, the charismatic leader appeared on television almost daily, speaking for hours and breaking into song or philosophical discourse. He often wore the bright red of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or the fatigues and red beret of his army days -- the same uniform he donned in 1992 while leading an ill-fated coup attempt that first landed him in jail and then launched his political career.

The rest of the world watched as the country with the world's biggest proven oil reserves took a turn to the left under its unconventional leader, who considered himself above all else a revolutionary.

"I'm still a subversive," Chavez told The Associated Press in a 2007 interview, recalling his days as a rebel soldier. "I think the entire world has to be subverted."

Chavez was a master communicator and savvy political strategist, and managed to turn his struggle against cancer into a rallying cry, until the illness finally defeated him.

From the start, he billed himself as the heir of Bolivar, who led much of South America to independence, often speaking beneath the 19th-century liberator's portrait and presenting replicas of his sword to allies. He built a soaring mausoleum in Caracas to house the remains of "El Libertador."

Chavez also was inspired by his mentor Fidel Castro and took on the Cuban leader's role as Washington's chief antagonist in the Western Hemisphere after the ailing Castro turned over the presidency to his brother Raul in 2006. Like Castro, Chavez decried U.S.-style capitalism while forming alliances throughout Latin America and with distant powers such as Russia, China and Iran.

Supporters eagerly raised Chavez to the pantheon of revolutionary legends ranging from Castro to Argentine-born rebel Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Chavez nurtured that cult of personality, and even as he stayed out of sight for long stretches during his bout with cancer, his out-sized image appeared on buildings and billboard throughout Venezuela. The airwaves boomed with his baritone mantra: "I am a nation." Supporters carried posters and wore masks of his eyes, chanting, "I am Chavez."

In the battles Chavez waged at home and abroad, he captivated his base by championing Venezuela's poor.

"This is the path: the hard, long path, filled with doubts, filled with errors, filled with bitterness, but this is the path," Chavez told his backers in 2011. "The path is this: socialism."

On television, he would lambast his opponents as "oligarchs," scold his aides, tell jokes, reminisce about his childhood, lecture Venezuelans on socialism and make sudden announcements, such as expelling the U.S. ambassador or ordering tanks to Venezuela's border with Colombia.

Chavez carried his in-your-face style to the world stage as well. In a 2006 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he called President George W. Bush the devil, saying the podium reeked of sulfur after the U.S. president's address.

At a summit in 2007, he repeatedly called Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a fascist, prompting Spain's King Juan Carlos to snap, "Why don't you shut up?"