CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s vice president announced yesterday that President Hugo Chavez had died, ending 14 years of rule by the firebrand socialist but leaving his party firmly in control of the nation.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said that Chavez died yesterday “after battling a tough illness for nearly two years.”
The death apparently sets up a presidential election to replace Chavez, whose illness prevented him from taking the oath of office for the term to which he was re-elected last year.
Under the constitution, the head of Congress, Diosdado Cabello, would assume the interim presidency.
The announcement came just hours after Maduro announced the government had expelled two U.S. diplomats from the country.
Maduro also said “we have no doubt” that Chavez’s cancer, which was first diagnosed in June 2011, was induced by foul play by “the historical enemies of our homeland.”
He compared the situation to the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, claiming Arafat was “inoculated with an illness.”
Chavez’s inner circle has long claimed the United States was behind a failed 2002 attempt to overthrow him, and he has frequently played the anti-American card to stir up support. Venezuela has been without a U.S. ambassador since July 2010.
Maduro is Chavez’s self-anointed successor and has been taking on a larger role since the socialist leader urged Venezuelans to choose him as president before disappearing in early December to undergo a fourth round of cancer surgery in Cuba.
Venezuela’s Constitution calls for snap presidential elections to be held if Chavez dies, and some analysts wondered whether Maduro’s suggesting the country was under attack by U.S. subterfuge might not be an excuse to delay the election and tighten his grip on power.
The government announced late Monday that Chavez’s condition was “very delicate” due to a “new, severe” respiratory infection threw an already anxious nation into even greater uncertainty.