CARACAS - Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, known for his strident attacks on capitalism and U.S. imperialism, died this afternoon in a military hospital, losing his two-year fight against cancer.
"Our Comandante Hugo Chávez Frias has died," Vice President Nicolas Maduro said, choking back tears, in a television address carried live.
Maduro, who was surrounded by members of the country's military command, said that Chávez died accompanied by his daughters, brother, and other family members. He called for calm and peace.
But on the streets of Caracas, Venezuelans reacted with shock and sadness at the news, which followed a day of increasingly bizarre events. Maduro had earlier held a press conference, announcing the expulsion of two U.S. diplomats for seeking to destabilize the government. Maduro also said that the government would launch an investigation to determine if Chávez's cancer had been caused by enemies of the country.
"I can't believe that he's dead," said Corinna Perez, a 30-year-old nurse in Caracas. "What's going to happen to us now? Chávez was Venezuela."
As news spread, the national phone system in the country collapsed as Venezuelans called their friends and families with the latest chatter. Chávez's situation had progressively worsened after he returned to Venezuela on Feb. 18 after spending more than two months in Cuba, recovering from his fourth operation for cancer.
Minutes after Chávez's death was announced, the country's defense minister, Adm. Diego Molero told the country that the military was behind Maduro, the government, and the Bolivarian revolution.
Venezuela's state television station broadcast live footage from the military hospital where Chávez died, along with old footage of the president. Beneath the telecast, headlines read, "Chávez lives! The Revolution continues!"
Outside, soldiers lowered the national flag to half mast.
"Chávez delivered a lot of his promises. He was the first president to share the country´s oil wealth with a majority of Venezuela´s people," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C.
Although many here thought that Chávez's death would be accompanied by rioting or demonstrations, Caracas was quiet this evening as the news sunk in.