Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, seen in July 2012, died Tuesday from… (Leo Ramirez / AFP / Getty…)
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died Tuesday of cancer at age 58, was beloved and reviled, bombastic and provocative, a flamboyant figure who was vastly influential in his country and throughout the region.
The former paratrooper-turned-populist promised to use Venezuela's vast oil wealth to improve life for the country's poor, and by most accounts he did just that. From 1997 to 2011, he reduced the percentage of people living in moderate poverty from 54% to 31%, and those living in extreme poverty from 23% to 9%, according to the World Bank. He dramatically reduced illiteracy, set up medical clinics in slums and working-class barrios, and established discount grocery stores. But even as he wielded his power to rally, energize and protect his country's poor, he also used it to reinforce his own position, attack his critics and censor the media. He passed laws that extended his time in office, as well as measures that allowed him to arbitrarily suspend television and radio stations. He stacked the courts with supporters.
And he waged a long, theatrical war of words with the United States, palling around with Cuba's Fidel Castro and embracing leaders such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His anti-U.S. rhetoric drove the George W. Bush administration crazy, but it also helped spearhead a reassessment by Latin American leaders of their relationship with the global superpower to the north. For better or worse, Chavez pushed for regional integration closer to home, helping set up organizations — such as the Union of South American Nations — that intentionally excluded Washington. The United States' decision to support a 2002 coup that briefly led to Chavez's ouster only deepened his hostility toward Washington.
PHOTOS: Hugo Chavez | 1954-2013
Now the question is what comes next in Venezuela. His handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, is expected to face an election within 30 days and, if he wins it, a bleak economic future, rising crime rates and a deeply polarized nation. Unlike the former president, Maduro, an ex-union organizer who served as foreign minister, may lack the charisma and political capital to win broad support and stave off political opponents. Hopefully, whoever leads Venezuela next will understand that the best way to win support and preserve the gains of the unfinished Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez won't be by attacking those who disagree with him, but by ensuring that all Venezuelans, rich and poor alike, have a voice in the government.