March 6, 2013 11:27:49 AM
CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez was a former paratroop commander and self-styled "subversive" who waged continual battle for his socialist ideals. He bedeviled the United States and outsmarted his rivals time and again, while using Venezuela's vast oil wealth to his political advantage.
Chavez led one coup attempt, defeated another and was re-elected three times. Almost the only adversary it seemed he couldn't beat was cancer. He died Tuesday in Caracas 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.
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.