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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dies
The controversial leader had been battling cancer since 2011
 
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez blows a kiss as he arrives at a rally with his supporters on Feb 23, 2012.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez blows a kiss as he arrives at a rally with his supporters on Feb 23, 2012. REUTERS/Jorge Silva 

The Associated Press reports that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has died at the age of 58, following an on-again, off-again battle with cancer that had destabilized Venezuelan politics over the past couple of years.

Since coming to power in 1999, Chavez has been a forceful and provocative voice for socialist policies in Latin America, emerging as the de facto leader of a leftist bloc that sought to counter the influence of the U.S. in the region. However, despite showing some authoritarian tendencies, Chavez enjoyed strong support within his own nation, and was handily re-elected to a fourth term in 2012 in what was considered to be a free and fair election.

In particular, Chavez's policies of redistribution and nationalization of oil assets endeared him to Venezuela's working class, though many economists say Venezuela's state-driven, oil-centric economy has taken away resources from other areas that are badly in need of development.

Indeed, it remains to be seen whether Chavez's ruling party can hold onto power without its charismatic leader, in the face of growing middle-class resentment toward Chavez's rule. According to Venezuela's constitution, an election must be held within 30 days of a president's death, though Chavez's allies in recent months have suggested alternative interpretations of that provision, suggesting that the country could be headed toward a stretch of political uncertainty. If the election were held today, it would likely pit Vice President Nicolas Maduro against Henrique Capriles Radonski, who ran against Chavez in the last election.

Maduro has yet to announce a new election, though he so far appears to have the support of Chavez's ministers, as well as the chiefs of the army.

More broadly, it also remains uncertain what impact Chavez's death will have on the region as a whole. According to The Wall Street Journal, "The biggest potential loser could be Cuba, which depends on Venezuela for an estimated $5 billion a year in virtually free oil — a windfall that helps the cash-strapped Communist regime survive." Several other Latin American countries that have followed Chavez's lead also depended on his largesse, prompting concerns that his death could have a destabilizing, ripple-like effect across the region.

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