President Hugo Chavez's death, while not unexpected, brings an uncertain future to a country that he ruled with an iron fist. It also may present a great opportunity for American diplomacy in Venezuela and Latin America.
Chavez wanted to be considered a man of the people. He was charismatic, quick witted and combative. He was a polarizing leader, pitting the rich against the poor. He verbally attacked superpowers, while embracing Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
To his opponents, he was a tyrant who imposed a failed "Bolivarian" socialist state, while suppressing the media, limiting rights and nationalizing oil production. His socialist revolution was focused on feeding and educating the poor, and expanding health care throughout the country. They were his base, and he won their loyalty.
Chavez entertained his followers with humor, singing, dancing and lengthy speeches. He decided to nationalize golf courses, saying, "That's an injustice -- that someone should have the luxury of having I don't know how many hectares to play golf and drink whiskey and, next door, there's misery and children dying when there are landslides."
He wielded influence, somewhat successfully, throughout Latin America by attacking the United States as imperialist. In 2007, he spoke to the United Nations a day after President George Bush. "The devil came here yesterday, and it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of," he said to the assembly. He once responded to criticism from President Barack Obama in a speech by saying, "You are a clown, a clown."
Venezuela has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, and about 40 percent of the oil it exports goes to the United States, or almost one million barrels a day. Yet, while oil wealth was the source of Chavez's power, the country's economy faces serious problems brought on by spending, capital flight and shortages.
Now Chavez is dead, and his loss leaves a great vacuum, and a country roiled in a political crisis. His handpicked successor is Vice President Nicolás Maduro, who, while announcing the president's death, accused the United States of destabilizing Venezuela, and expelled two U.S. military attaches. Venezuela's constitution calls for an election in 30 days, but Muduro, who will be a candidate, will run the country until a new president is chosen.
President Obama issued a statement on Tuesday: "At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez's passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government." This will be a major diplomatic challenge for the U.S.
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan defense minister said the military is in the, "process of deploying ... to ensure the safety of all Venezuelans." And Maduro, a former bus driver, in announcing Chavez's death, said, "We call on all compatriots to guarantee the peace. We, his civil and military compatriots, assume the legacy of Hugo Chavez."
But will a bitterly divided Venezuelan people, freed of the yoke of a larger than life dictator, want to carry on his legacy?