The future of a socialist revolution in the heart of Latin America hangs in the balance now that Venezuela is grieving the loss of its polarizing dictator, Hugo Chavez, whose 14-year rule divided the nation and was a thorn in the side of the United States right up until his death Tuesday.
The death of the fiery populist, whose name was so closely tied to the nation's modern identity, left supporters and opponents alike wondering what lies ahead for the major oil-producing nation. Mr. Chavez leaves behind a country locked in a political crisis that only grew more entrenched as speculation swirled over his condition as he endured his final weeks, out of sight, in a military hospital.
The former paratrooper's condition was a mystery until a tearful Vice-President Nicolas Maduro took to state television Tuesday to confirm what the President's supporters feared most: Their captivating, grandiose visionary had died.
"We, your civilian and military companions, Commander Hugo Chavez, assume your legacy, your challenges, your project, accompanied by and with the support of the people," Mr. Maduro told the nation, which began an official period of seven days of mourning.
Crowds of red-shirted supporters took to the streets and gunshots were heard in the Chavez-friendly barrios of Caracas, the country's capital. Fearing riots, shop owners shuttered their stores, bracing for what may come now that the country's leadership – and its future – is unknown. The Venezuelan government wasted no time in deploying its security forces, unfurling both the army and police to "protect our people and guarantee the peace," Mr. Maduro said.
President Barack Obama said Mr. Chavez's death opened the possibility for a "new chapter" in the country's history, saying in a statement that the United States "reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered condolences to the people of Venezuela, and said in a statement that Canada "looks forward to working with his successor and other leaders in the region to build a hemisphere that is more prosperous, secure and democratic." Only recently, though, the Harper government had reached out for the first time to the Chavistas.
Mr. Chavez's death comes as tensions rise between moderates and radicals inside the Democratic Unity coalition led by Henrique Capriles, who in the October, 2012, election galvanized Mr. Chavez's opponents like never before and led the party to an impressive 44-per-cent finish. His death also was preceded by bizarre allegations, unleashed by the Venezuelan government hours before it announced the news, that the country's "historic enemies" had somehow caused Mr. Chavez's cancer and that the United States had specifically conspired to destabilize the regime.
The government also expelled two U.S. military attachés from Caracas. The U.S. State Department rejected the conspiracy claim and deemed the notion that U.S. officials somehow sickened Mr. Chavez "absurd."
Now that Mr. Chavez is out of the picture, and with only 30 days to replace him through elections under Venezuelan law, the socialist party's future appears to lie in the hands of one of four men. Mr. Chavez anointed Mr. Maduro his successor, days before his six-hour surgery in Cuba last December, but the constitution states that the leader of the national assembly, today Diosdado Cabello, takes over. Also in the running are Mr. Chavez's even further left-leaning brother, Adan, and former vice-president Elias Jaua.
While the next 30 days are bound to prove critical in defining Venezuela's way forward, the more imminent future was squarely on locals' minds. In the opposition stronghold of Altamira, the scene was quiet as one resident called the death of Mr. Chavez the death of socialism in Venezuela altogether.
Raul Villegas, a Chavez supporter from western Caracas, meantime, was in tears upon learning the news. "I thought his return from Cuba meant hope," Mr. Villegas said. "I will not be leaving my house for some time. … Caracas isn't safe tonight."
With reports from wire services and Alasdair Baverstock in Caracas