Hugo Chavez, the polarizing president of Venezuela who cast himself as a "21st century socialist" and foe of the United States, died Tuesday, said Vice President Nicolas Maduro.
Chavez, who had battled cancer, was 58.
Chavez's democratic ascent to the presidency in 1999 ushered in a new era in Venezuelan politics and its international relations.
Once a foiled coup-plotter, the swashbuckling former paratrooper was known for lengthy speeches on everything from the evils of capitalism to the proper way to conserve water while showering. He was the first of a wave of leftist presidents to come to power in Latin America in the last dozen years.
As the most vocal U.S. adversary in the region, he influenced other leaders to take a similar stance.
But the last months of Chavez's life were marked by an uncharacteristic silence as his health worsened. Chavez underwent a fourth surgery on December 11 in Cuba, and was not publicly seen again. A handful of pictures released in February were the last images the public had of their president.
Chavez's ministers stubbornly maintained a hopeful message throughout the final weeks, even while admitting that the recently re-elected president was weakened while battling a respiratory infection.
President concentrated country's power
Chavez launched an ambitious plan to remake Venezuela, a major oil producer, into a socialist state in the so-called Bolivarian Revolution, which took its name from Chavez's idol, Simon Bolivar, who won independence for many South American countries in the early 1800s.
"After many readings, debates, discussions, travels around the world, etcetera, I am convinced -- and I believe this conviction will be for the rest of my life -- that the path to a new, better and possible world is not capitalism. The path is socialism," he said on his weekly television program in 2005.
Chavez redirected much of the country's vast oil wealth, which increased dramatically during his tenure, to massive social programs for the country's poor. He expanded the portfolio of the state-owned oil monopoly to include funding for social "missions" worth millions of dollars. That helped pay for programs that seek to eradicate illiteracy, provide affordable food staples and grant access to higher education, among other things.
But Chavez also leaves a legacy of repression against politicians and private media who opposed him.
He concentrated power in the executive branch, turning formerly independent institutions -- such as the judiciary, the electoral authorities and the military -- into partisan loyalists.
Through decrees and a judiciary tilted in the president's favor, many political opponents found themselves barred from running in elections against the ruling party. Even former allies, like Chavez's onetime defense minister, Gen. Raul Baduel, faced accusations that critics called trumped-up corruption charges.
Chavez's government similarly targeted opposition broadcasters, passing laws and decrees that forced at least one major broadcaster and dozens of smaller radio and television stations off the air.
Opponents also have criticized his social programs, calling them unsustainable over the long run and responsible for unintended consequences. Price controls, for instance, drove up inflation, while expropriations of farmland depressed production.
Vocal critic of American policy
In lengthy, freewheeling speeches, Chavez saved his most acerbic barbs for the "imperialist" United States and its "colonial" allies in the region.
He accused the United States of trying to orchestrate his overthrow, and referred to President George W. Bush as the devil in front of the United Nations General Assembly.
At home, business interests accused him of scaring off investment by abusing the power of expropriation. Venezuela struggled to grow its economy during this period, even as the nation was flush with money from oil, which was at about $17 a barrel when Chavez took office and rose to more than $100 a barrel.
In addition to domestic social programs, the Chavez government pumped money into his foreign policy interests. He invested millions of dollars in oil and cash in countries that were ideologically similar.
Chavez considered former Cuban leader Fidel Castro a mentor, and aligned his country with Iran and other nations opposed to the United States.
Cuba loses a benefactor in Chavez, whose provision of an oil lifeline at below-market prices could be at risk under a new government.
While Chavez admired Castro, he found most inspiration from Bolivar, even renaming the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
An affable, if sometimes bombastic, man, Chavez had a disarming manner that even his critics could not deny.