In 2002, he survived a short-lived coup, which began after a large anti-Chavez street protest ended in deadly shootings. Dissident military officers detained the president and announced he had resigned. But within two days, he returned to power with the help of military loyalists while his supporters rallied in the streets.
Chavez emerged a stronger president. He defeated a subsequent opposition-led strike that paralyzed the country's oil industry, and he fired thousands of state oil company employees.
The coup also turned Chavez more decidedly against the U.S. government, which had swiftly recognized the provisional leader who had briefly replaced him. He created political and trade alliances that excluded the U.S., and he cozied up to Iran and Syria in large part, it seemed, due to their shared antagonism toward the U.S. government.
Despite the souring relationship, Chavez sold the bulk of Venezuela's oil to the United States.
He easily won re-election in 2006, and then said it was his destiny to lead Venezuela until 2021 or even 2031.
"I'm still a subversive," Chavez said in a 2007 interview with The Associated Press. "I think the entire world has to be subverted."
Playing such a larger-than-life public figure ultimately left little time for a personal life.
His second marriage, to journalist Marisabel Rodriguez, deteriorated in the early years of his presidency, and they divorced in 2004. In addition to their one daughter, Rosines, Chavez had three children from his first marriage, which ended before Chavez ran for office.
Chavez acknowledged after he was diagnosed with cancer that he had been recklessly neglecting his health. He had taken to staying up late and drinking as many as 40 cups of coffee a day. He regularly summoned his Cabinet ministers to the presidential palace late at night.
He often said he believed Venezuela was on its way down a long road toward socialism, and that there was no turning back. After winning re-election in 2012, he vowed to deepen his push to transform Venezuela.
His political movement, however, was mostly a one-man show. Only three days before his final surgery, Chavez named Maduro as his chosen successor.
Now, it will be up to Venezuelans to determine whether the Chavismo movement can survive, and how it will evolve, without the leader who inspired it.
Biographical information for this report was contributed by former Caracas bureau chief Ian James.
- Rubber chickens, afros and clowns: A look at...
- As Ferguson verdict is read, protesters in...
- Why Utahns are some of the biggest spenders,...
- Ferguson businesses torched in overnight...
- Immigration reform will boost the economy,...
- Latinos are 'very optimistic' about America's...
- In New Zealand, feud over fate of 1902 corpse...
- Attorney General Eric Holder: 'Disappointed'...
- As Ferguson verdict is read, protesters... 68
- Grand jury won't indict Ferguson cop in... 30
- Obama: Americans want 'new car smell'... 29
- Fact check: Obama's claims on illegal... 18
- Winners and losers under Obama's... 18
- Ferguson businesses torched in... 17
- Under pressure, Hagel steps down as... 15
- Obama immigration plan good, not great... 13