CHAVEZ IS DEAD
Venezuelan President, 58, loses battle with cancer
Venezuela's vice president announced that President Hugo Chavez died on Tuesday, ending 14 years of rule by the firebrand socialist but leaving his party firmly in control of the nation.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro said that Chavez died "after battling a tough illness for nearly two years."
The death apparently sets up a presidential election to replace Chavez, whose illness prevented him from taking the oath of office for the term to which he was re-elected last year.
Under the constitution, the head of Congress, Diosdado Cabello, will assume the interim presidency.
The announcement came just hours after Maduro announced the government had expelled two US diplomats from the country.
Maduro also said, "We have no doubt" that Chavez's cancer, which was first diagnosed in June 2011, was induced by foul play by "the historical enemies of our homeland."
He compared the situation to the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, claiming Arafat was "inoculated with an illness."
Chavez's inner circle has long claimed the United States was behind a failed 2002 attempt to overthrow him, and he has frequently played the anti-American card to stir up support. Venezuela has been without a US ambassador since July 2010.
Maduro is Chavez's self-anointed successor and has been taking on a larger role since the socialist leader urged Venezuelans to choose him as president before disappearing in early December to undergo a fourth round of cancer surgery in Cuba.
Venezuela's Constitution calls for snap presidential elections to be held if Chavez dies, and some analysts wondered whether Maduro's suggesting the country was under attack by US subterfuge might not be an excuse to delay the election and tighten his grip on power.
The government announced late Monday that Chavez's condition was "very delicate" due to a "new, severe" respiratory infection threw an already anxious nation into even greater uncertainty
"We don't know if he's alive or if he's dead, because they are manipulating the public," Antonio Perez, a retired 60-year-old public servant, said of the government. "Everyone want to just see the president to know if it's true that he's still with us."
Supporters of the 58-year-old president prayed for Chavez yesterday at a chapel outside the military hospital where the government says he has been since February 18.
Maduro aired his claim of an alleged attempt to destabilise "Venezuelan society" and the "political system constructed in recent years" before the nation's high command, and the governors of 20 of 23 states loyal to President Chavez, half of them former military officers.
He accused US Embassy's Air Force attache Col David Delmonaco of spying on Venezuela's military and seeking to involve officers in "destabilising projects." Maduro gave Delmonaco 24 hours to leave, and US officials said he had already departed the country.
Later Tuesday, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said a second US Air Force attache was being expelled, also for alleged espionage.
"Let's remember that active participation of the United States in the fascist coup of 2002," Jaua said.
Chavez had neither been seen nor heard from, except for photos released in mid-February, since submitting to a fourth round of surgery in Cuba on December 11 for an unspecified cancer in the pelvic area. It was first diagnosed in June 2011.
The government said Chavez returned home on February 18 and has been confined to Caracas' military hospital ever since.
Maduro said yesterday that the government was "on the trail of other elements that figure in this entire venomous scenario and are seeking to stir up trouble."
The man Chavez defeated in the October 7 presidential elections, the youthful Miranda state Gov Henrique Capriles, would be expected to represent the opposition in any new elections.
Chavez has run Venezuela for more than 14 years as a virtual one-man show, gradually placing all state institutions under his personal control. But the former army paratroop commander, who rose to fame by launching a failed 1992 coup, never groomed a successor with his same kind of force of personality.