At two defining moments of his rule, Venezuela’s theatrical leader Hugo Chavez took a small silver crucifix from his pocket and held it above his head.
Both marked a quasi-religious “return” for the socialist ex-soldier whom supporters loved with messianic fervour – first from a 2002 coup that saw him jailed on a tiny Caribbean island, and then from cancer surgery in Cuba in June, 2011.
As he held aloft the crucifix from a balcony of his Miraflores Palace after returning from that surgery, the maverick president of South America’s biggest oil exporter said he was putting his fate in the hands of God and the Virgin Mary.
“Today, the revolution is more alive than ever. I feel it, I live it, I touch it. … If Christ is with us, who can be against us? If the people are with us, who can be against us?” he said, working his supporters into a frenzy.
“But no one should think my presence here means the battle is won. No,” he cautioned, turning the screams of joy at his homecoming to tears at the fragile state of his health.
Mr. Chavez died in hospital on Tuesday, finally succumbing to the cancer after four operations in Cuba. His death ended 14 years of charismatic, volatile rule that turned him into a major world figure.
Ever the showman, Mr. Chavez would jump from theology to jokes, and from Marxist rhetoric to baseball metaphors in building an almost cult-like devotion among followers.
Throughout his presidency, he projected himself in religious, nationalistic and radical terms as Venezuela’s saviour, and it largely worked. While his foes reviled him and portrayed him as a boorish dictator, Mr. Chavez was hailed by supporters as a champion of the poor, and he won four presidential elections.
He took over from his mentor, Fidel Castro, as the leader of Latin America’s left-wing bloc and its loudest critic of the United States, winning friends and enemies alike with a cutting and dramatic frankness no one could match.
When the cancer first struck, Mr. Chavez could have stepped aside to fight it.
Instead, he stretched his physical limits by staying at the front of his government while running a successful but hobbled campaign to win a new six-year term at in last October’s election.
This second of six sons of teachers in the cattle-ranching plains of Barinas state was raised by his grandmother, Rosa Ines, in a mud-floor shack. The young man first aspired to be a painter or a pitcher in baseball’s major leagues in the United States.
Attracted by the chance to play baseball, he joined the army at 16 and was eventually promoted to lieutenant-colonel.
Though mixing with left-wing rebels and plotting within the military from long before, Mr. Chavez burst onto the national stage when he led a 1992 coup attempt against then leader Carlos Andres Perez.
The coup failed and Mr. Chavez surrendered, but he cut a dashing figure dressed in green fatigues and a red beret for a famous speech live on TV – before being carted off to jail.
His comment that the coup had failed por ahora (“for now”) electrified many Venezuelans, especially the poor, who admired Mr. Chavez for standing up to a government they felt was increasingly corrupt and cold to their needs.
The hint of more to come, plus his unashamed acceptance of responsibility made Mr. Chavez a hero in some sectors.
“I thank you for your loyalty, your valour, your exuberance, and I, before the country and before you all, assume responsibility for this Bolivarian militant movement,” he said, instructing his fellow rebels to lay down their arms.
Pardoned in 1994 by Venezuela’s next president, Rafael Caldera, Mr. Chavez left jail and began a grassroots political campaign, eventually defeating a former Miss Universe to win a presidential election four years later.
By doing so, the former paratrooper ended the grip of Venezuela’s traditional parties and launched his self-proclaimed “Bolivarian Revolution” – named for Venezuela’s 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Mr. Chavez changed the nation’s name to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and often spoke in front of huge paintings of Bolivar, sending a subliminal message to Venezuelans that he was the modern reincarnation of their historical idol. He built a soaring mausoleum in Caracas to house the remains of “El Libertador.”
In the early days of his rule, Mr. Chavez enjoyed runaway popularity levels of 80 per cent or more, especially in the sprawling slums of the capital, Caracas.
His first big test surfaced three years in, when he faced huge street protests and a buildup of withering criticism from political foes, business and labour leaders, Catholic bishops and even dissident soldiers.
But when military officers briefly pushed him out in their own coup in 2002, Mr. Chavez proved himself to be a survivor and bounced back to power after spending two days incommunicado and under arrest.
In what he frequently refers to as his darkest moment – matched only by the cancer diagnosis – Mr. Chavez thought he was going to be assassinated. In an incredible 72 hours for Venezuela, a counter-coup by loyalist troops and demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of outraged “Chavista” supporters forced Pedro Carmona, who had briefly seized power, to resign and restored Mr. Chavez to the presidency.
That led to his first “crucifix moment.”
The stocky, wiry-haired Mr. Chavez became Latin America’s most colourful and controversial leader. He soon became a household name from Middle America to the Middle East.
His allies say Mr. Chavez was misunderstood abroad, the victim of an unstinting U.S.-led propaganda campaign.
“They’ve called me a Mussolini or Fidel Castro or said I sleep with a book by Hitler for a pillow,” Mr. Chavez once said. “But the people know the truth. They know who I really am.”
His critics regularly accused him and his government of being corrupt and inept, and of steering the country toward a Cuban-style authoritarian regime. Certainly, a clutch of opponents ended up in exile or jail, normally on graft charges they said were trumped up.
A decade of high oil prices allowed Mr. Chavez to spend huge amounts on social programs that became the linchpin of his support among poor voters.
They included his famous slum “missions” that provided free health care and education, plus subsidized food, clothes and even electronics, and are likely to be his biggest legacy.
Mr. Chavez defended his “revolution” as a long-overdue crusade to close the yawning gap between rich and poor in Venezuela, which combines huge oil and mineral wealth with grinding poverty, widespread unemployment and rampant crime, including one of the world’s highest murder rates.
His praise for Communist Cuba and Fidel Castro, combined with his courting of other anti-U.S. states such as Iran, irritated Washington, which has long been the main foreign buyer of Venezuelan oil.
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly in 2006, a day after then-U.S. president George Bush, he called Mr. Bush the “devil,” triggering shocked gasps and wry smiles around the hall.
“Yesterday the devil came here. Right here,” Mr. Chavez said, crossing himself. “And it still smells of sulfur today.”
He used similarly colourful language to condemn his domestic political opponents, calling them ruthless capitalist speculators, traitors and los escualidos – a squalid, bitter minority linked to the traditional political parties, which he said were venal and corrupt, and which he defeated in 1998.
Toward the end of his rule, his illness made him more philosophical. Mr. Chavez said he had ignored his doctors at his peril and quoted Friedrich Nietzsche, while also invoking the “spirits” of the plains of his youth.
At times, he sounded much more conciliatory toward his political foes; at others, he remained defiantly scathing.
And he never lost his flair for the theatrical. When a U.S. newspaper quoted unnamed sources in September of 2011 saying he had been rushed to a military hospital with kidney failure after a fourth session of chemotherapy – prompting speculation around the world that he was at death’s door – he summoned the foreign press corps to Miraflores the following morning.
He emerged wearing a tracksuit, cap and catcher’s mitt, and tossed a baseball back and forth with aides while cracking jokes with several sportswear-clad ministers.
Next, he stood unaided on the palace steps and took questions for more than an hour, chuckling as he read aloud from the Miami-based newspaper’s report and holding forth on world politics, the war in Libya, the failings of the international media and the scourge of global capitalism.
“I’m fine. Those who don’t love me and wish me ill, well, bad luck!” he said.
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