Chávez had been ill since at least 2011, when he had his first operation to remove an abscessed tumor. The situation progressed poorly, and by December of last year Chávez was in Cuba—long an ally to his socialist politics—where he had a fourth cancer operation. The president, who won another six-year term in October 2012, stayed in Cuba for more than two months, only returning to Caracas on February 18.
In recent days, Chávez's health had declined even further as he struggled with respiratory problems. "The breathing insufficiency that emerged post-operation persists and the tendency has not been favorable, so it is still being treated," read an official government report delivered to Venezuelans on February 22. Save for a few photos released by governmental authorities, Chávez's time in Havana was the last time he was ever seen or heard from publicly.
Chávez spent 14 years atop Venezuela, and during that time he enjoyed high approval ratings and a fan club that called themselves "chavistas." Yet Chávez's Bolivarian-Marxist leadership often did no favors for the nation he was governing. As Ricardo Hausmann, director of Harvard's Center for International Development, put it in a recent Guardian article, what made Chávez's popularity especially strange was that it lingered in spite of his numerous failures:
Chávez's sustained electoral success is remarkable because he managed to achieve it despite a dismal economic and social performance. Since 1999, the year he took over the presidency, Venezuela has had the lowest average GDP per capita growth rate and the highest inflation of any Latin American country except Haiti. It has also seen a fivefold increase in assassinations to arguably the highest murder rate in the world. In spite of having the largest oil reserves in the planet, he managed to reduce Venezuela's share of OPEC oil output from 4.8% to around 3%. He also managed to stimulate the largest out-migration of Venezuelans in memory.
Chávez shuttered "bourgeois" golf courses and forced TV stations that crossed him off the air. Stories of corruption within his inner circle were notorious, and in 2002 a group of military officers briefly forced Chávez to resign as deadly riots overtook the streets of Caracas. The Bush White House, officials of which met with the leaders of the coup, and The New York Times, whose editorial board enthusiastically backed the ouster, celebrated: "Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator," the paper crowed, barely acknowledging that Chávez had, in fact, been democratically elected president. As seemed to frequently be the case in those days, no one thought very much about what the country's citizens would think. Three days later, Chávez was reinstated when the businessman who'd taken his place proved unable to drum up support for his new regime. When the Times asked a Bush official if the administration recognized Chávez as legitimate, he replied, ''He was democratically elected... Legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters, however."
Throughout it all, glimpses of Chávez's benevolence—gifts of new refrigerators and apartments to poor voters around election time, thanks to the state's oil riches—were generally enough to keep the president's ratings afloat and his head off a coup's chopping block. The Venezuelan government even extended some of its kindnesses to the United States, donating heating oil to low-income families throughout America via a CITGO goodwill program. Still, Chávez knew he had disappointed many Venezuelans, saying late last year, just before the election, "This government will be much better than all the governments of Chávez [he regularly talked about himself in the third person]. I promise I will be a much better president than I have been."
The question now is what's up next for Venezuela, where rampant corruption, the drug trade, violence, and poverty could potentially throw the nation into chaos without a stable government. According to Sean Burges, a senior associate in the Australian National Centre for Latin American Studies at the Australian National University, Article 232 of the Venezuelan constitution says "new presidential elections must be held if a president dies, resigns or is fired from the presidency within the first four years of their term."
Perhaps assuming he'd be dead soon, Chávez proclaimed before his most recent surgery that he wanted his vice president, Maduro, to take his place if he passed away. "In effect Chávez is trying to exercise a practice that Mexicans under the 71-year authoritarian rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party knew as the 'dedazo,' or the touch of the president's finger to anoint the chosen successor," wrote Burges. "The question in Venezuela is whether Chávez's finger will be strong enough to reach out from his grave."