The controversial and gregarious Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez Frías died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer, Vice President Nicolás Maduro said.
Chávez, 58, was diagnosed with an unannounced form of cancer in 2011 and his health deteriorated rapidly after winning reelection in November.
A somber Maduro, who was flanked by government and party officials, announced Chávez’s death from the Miraflores presidential palace. He praised the former socialist leader for his long rule and asked his critics for respect.
“We’re going to grow, we’re going to get past this,” Maduro said. “Have a lot of courage. Stay strong, be strong.”
“Let his name rise up. Let’s praise Hugo Chávez.”
Maduro closed his statement by saying “long live, Hugo Chávez,” as supporters behind him echoed the chant.
In a statement, President Barack Obama said Chávez’s death reaffirms America’s commitment to the Venezuelan people.
“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,” the president said.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter released a statement saying Chavez "will be remembered for his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments."
The populist leader of oil-rich Venezuela became Latin America's most vocal and controversial leader and was Washington's chief antagonist in the region.
Critics called Chávez a cruel, authoritarian ruler who had a negative impact on the country.
“He cracked down on freedom of the press and arrested judges and opposition leaders who didn’t agree with him,” Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) said in a statement.
“Now, there is hope for the restoration of freedom in Venezuela with truly free and fair elections, renewal of a civil society, and the protection of an independent press.”
“Today his death marks the end of this tyrannical rule but the road to democracy for the Venezuelan people is still very much uncertain,” she said. “I am hopeful that democracy will rise from the ashes of the Chávez regime and again become a part of a new Venezuela.”
But experts weren’t so sure about the future of Venezuela. An election is likely to be held in a month and Maduro – as Chávez’s anointed successor – is expected to win handily, said Eric Hershberg, director for the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.
“The Chavista project will remain intact,” Hershberg said. "Oil revenues keep the system going and it allows the state to keep up its social programs that keep them in power.”
“The polarization, he said, of Venezuelan politics between Chavistas and anti-Chavistas will have a profound effect on the country’s political scene for the forseeable future, he said.
The announcement came hours after Maduro lashed out at the country’s “enemies” and expelled two U.S. diplomats whom he accused of spying on the country’s military.
Maduro also pointed to the U.S. and other foreign countries of somehow poisoning Chávez with an infection.
Chris Sabatini, an analyst for America's Society/Council of the Americas, a think tank in New York City, said it was obvious the government knew the gravity of Chávez’s situation when he made the initial announcement.
“They clearly knew that it was only a matter of hours before he stopped breathing,” he said of the announcement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.