The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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March 5, 2013

Hugo Chavez, fiery Venezuelan leader, dies

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez was a fighter. The former paratroop commander and fiery populist waged continual battle for his socialist ideals and outsmarted his rivals time and again, defeating a coup attempt, winning re-election three times and using his country’s vast oil wealth to his political advantage.

A self-described “subversive,” Chavez fashioned himself after the 19th Century independence leader Simon Bolivar and renamed his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

He called himself a “humble soldier” in a battle for socialism and against U.S. hegemony. He thrived on confrontation with Washington and his political opponents at home, and used those conflicts to rally his followers.

Almost the only adversary it seemed he couldn’t beat was cancer.

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.

His 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.

Before his struggle with cancer, he appeared on television almost daily, frequently speaking for hours and breaking into song or philosophical discourse. He often wore the bright red of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or the fatigues and red beret of his army days. He had donned the same uniform in 1992 while leading an ill-fated coup attempt that first landed him in jail and then launched his political career.

The rest of the world watched as the country with the world’s biggest proven oil reserves took a turn to the left  under its unconventional leader, who considered himself above all else a revolutionary.

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