CARACAS, Venezuela — Hundreds of anguished Venezuelans poured into the streets of downtown Caracas crying, hugging each other and shouting slogans in support of President Hugo Chavez after learning of his death Tuesday.
Clusters of women with tears streaming down their faces clung to each other and wept near the Miraflores presidential palace. Some wore T-shirts with slogans that read "Go forward commander!"
Nearby, men with grim and somber faces pumped their arms in the air while shouting "Long live Chavez! Long live Chavismo!"
People also gathered outside the military hospital where Chavez died. Soldiers in riot gear stood shoulder to shoulder guarding the complex.
"I feel such big pain I can't even speak," said Yamilina Barrios, a 39-year-old office worker weeping at a street corner. "He was the best thing the country had ... I adore him. Let's hope the country calms down and we can continue the tasks he left us."
Many people left work and rushed home as shops and offices began to close early and tension gripped the streets in Caracas, capital of a country deeply divided by the programs pursued by Chavez, a charismatic leader who was a former paratroop commander and self-styled "subversive" who waged continual battle for his socialist ideals.
Chavez bedeviled the United States and outsmarted his rivals time and again, while using Venezuela's vast oil wealth to his political advantage. He led one coup attempt, defeated another and was re-elected three times. Almost the only adversary it seemed he couldn't beat was cancer, which ended his life Tuesday at age 58, two years after he was first diagnosed.
The son of schoolteachers, he rose from poverty in a dirt-floor, mud-walled house, a "humble soldier" in the battle for socialism. He fashioned himself after 19th-century independence leader Simon Bolivar and renamed his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
During more than 14 years in office, his leftist politics and grandiose style polarized Venezuelans. The barrel-chested leader electrified crowds with his booming voice, and won admiration among the poor with government social programs and a folksy, nationalistic style.
Opponents seethed at the larger-than-life character who demonized them on television and ordered the expropriation of farms and businesses. Many in the middle class cringed at his bombast and complained about rising crime, soaring inflation and government economic controls.
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Chavez used his country's oil wealth to launch social programs that included state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs. While poverty declined during his presidency amid a historic boom in oil earnings, critics said he failed to use the windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars to develop the country's economy.
Inflation soared and the homicide rate rose to among the highest in the world
Chavez was inspired by his mentor Fidel Castro and took on the Cuban leader's role as Washington's chief antagonist in the Western Hemisphere after the ailing Castro turned over the presidency to his brother Raul in 2006. Like Castro, Chavez decried U.S.-style capitalism while championing Venezuela's poor and forming alliances throughout Latin America and with distant powers such as Russia, China and Iran.