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Venezuela: International community mourns Hugo Chavez


Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has died at age 58 after a two-year battle with cancer. International leaders immediately responded with an outpouring of condolences. Meanwhile, Chavez's successor moves up.

The announcement of the longtime president's death came during the early evening on Tuesday local time in a televised announcement by Vice President Nicolas Maduro.

"We have received the hardest and most tragic news that President Hugo Chavez died today at 4:25 pm," said Maduro.

"It's a moment of deep pain," he said.

Supporters took to the streets across the South American nation in mourning following the news. Amid the flags and posters of their beloved president, members of the crowd chanted "Chavez lives forever!" and "The fight continues!"

Hugo Chavez had recently returned from cancer treatment in Cuba, during which time he was neither seen nor heard from for nearly three weeks. The scant signs of life released over his remaining days in Caracas raised concerns over his ability to make another recovery, which he had managed after three previous cancer surgeries since it was first detected in his pelvic area in mid-2011.

By Monday, Vice President Maduro told officials that complications from an infection had caused Chavez's health to become "very severe."

Chavez's body will reportedly lie in state from Wednesday until Friday, when a memorial service is scheduled to be held. The government has also called for seven days of public mourning.

Hugo Chavez served as president for 14 consecutive years. In October, he won re-election, but the relapse of his cancer hindered him from taking office.

Leaders saddened by loss

Shortly after the announcement of Chavez's death, world leaders issued statements extending condolences to Venezuela's population in mourning and revealing a strong attachment to the charismatic ruler despite ideological differences.

United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon paid homage to the deceased president's efforts to improve the lives of the "most vulnerable Venezuelans."

"He provided decisive impetus for new regional integration movements, based on an eminently Latin American vision, while showing solidarity toward other nations in the hemisphere," Ban's statement said, referring particularly to his support of Colombia's peace process.

In separate letters of condolence, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and French President Francois Hollande both spoke of the socialist president's mark on Venezuelan history.

"The late president expressed, while his temperament and the positions he took were not shared by everyone, an undeniable wish to fight for justice and development," Hollande said.

Latin American leaders mourned the loss of a friend and a champion of neighboring countries, praising his conviction and leadership.

"I think in the last two years ... our relations with Venezuela advanced really well, and he was also a very important support for the current peace process," Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said. "Hopefully he'll find peace."

The Cuban government reportedly ordered three days of mourning for their close ally who "stood by Fidel like a true son." Castro had mentored Chavez for many years.

Critics of Chavez accused him of authoritarian policies that allowed him to quash opposition within the government. Chavez also presided over and ever-growing crime rate and a fast-declining currency: During his presidency, murders tripled; the government devalued the bolivar by a third just in February.

Elections in 30 days

An official transition of power moved forward quickly after the news of Chavez's death spread across the country. In compliance with his wishes, his vice president, Nicolas Maduro would serve as interim head of government and then run in a presidential elections within 30 days. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Chavez had state these wishes in December.

According to the Venezuelan constitution, the speaker of the National Assembly assumes the role of interim president upon his or her death if a president can't be sworn in. Former President Hugo Chavez had been unable to attend the originally scheduled inauguration in early January due to health issues. However, the country's Supreme Court had upheld his legitimacy as head of government, delaying the swearing in until he his health improved.

US President Barack Obama in his offerings of condolence to the Venezuelan people who were experiencing a "challenging time," seemed to address Maduro directly in his hopes for the country's future.

"As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights," Obama said in a statement.

Caracas and Washington have long had a strained relationship, amid clashing political interests. Most recently, Maduro implied that the US had been conspiring against Chavez, accusations Washington denied.

kms/jm (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)

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