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 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. He died Tuesday in Caracas at 4:25 p.m. local time after his prolonged illness. He was 58.
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.
Chavez used his country's vast oil wealth to launch social programs that included state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs.
Poverty declined during Chavez's presidency amid a historic boom in oil earnings, but critics said he failed to use the windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars to develop the country's economy. Inflation soared, and the homicide rate rose to among the highest in the world.
Before his struggle with cancer, Chavez 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.
"I'm still a subversive," the president told The Associated Press in a 2007 interview, recalling his days as a rebel soldier. "I think the entire world has to be subverted."
Chavez was a master communicator and savvy political strategist, and managed to turn his struggle against cancer into a rallying cry, until the illness finally defeated him.
From the start, he billed himself as the heir of Bolivar, who led much of South America to independence. He often spoke beneath a portrait of Bolivar and presented replicas of the liberator's sword to allies. He built a soaring mausoleum in Caracas to house the remains of "El Libertador."
Chavez also was inspired by his mentor Fidel Castro and took on the Cuban leader's role as Washington's chief antagonist in the Western Hemisphere after the ailing Castro turned over the presidency to his brother Raul in 2006. Like Castro, Chavez vilified U.S.-style capitalism while forming alliances throughout Latin America and with distant powers such as Russia, China and Iran.
Supporters eagerly raised Chavez to the pantheon of revolutionary legends ranging from Castro to Argentine-born rebel Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Chavez nurtured that cult of personality, and even as he stayed out of sight for long stretches fighting cancer, his out-sized image appeared on buildings and billboards throughout Venezuela.
Chavez carried his in-your-face style to the world stage as well. In a 2006 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he called President George W. Bush the devil, saying the podium reeked of sulfur after the U.S. president's address.
At a summit in 2007, he repeatedly called Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a fascist, prompting Spain's King Juan Carlos to snap, "Why don't you shut up?"
Critics saw Chavez as a typical Latin American caudillo, a strongman who ruled through force of personality and showed disdain for democratic rules. Chavez concentrated power in his hands with allies who dominated the congress and justices who controlled the Supreme Court.
"El Comandante," as he was known, insisted Venezuela remained a vibrant democracy and denied charges that he sought to restrict free speech. But some opponents faced criminal charges and were driven into exile. His government forced the opposition-aligned television channel, RCTV, off the air by refusing to renew its license.
On StarNet: Go to azstarnet. com/gallery for more photos of Hugo Chavez
HUGO Chavez CHRONOLOGY
Key events in Chavez's life:
Feb. 4, 1992 - Army paratrooper Lt. Col. Chavez leads botched coup against President Carlos Andres Perez. Faces possible 30-year prison term.
March 26, 1994 - After two years in jail awaiting trial, Chavez and fellow plotters set free when President Rafael Caldera dismisses charges.
Dec. 6, 1998 - Wins presidential election, promising to seek a "third way" between socialism and capitalism.
Dec. 15, 1999 - Venezuelans vote to accept Chavez-backed constitution. It eliminates Senate, changes country's name to Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, lengthens presidential term from five years to six.
July 30, 2000 - Elected to new six-year term.
April 11, 2002 - Gunfire erupts as protesters demanding Chavez's resignation march toward presidential palace; 19 people killed. Dissident generals oust Chavez and clear way for interim government that throws out constitution.
April 14, 2002 - After huge protests by Chavez supporters, loyal army officers rescue Chavez, restore him to power.
Sept. 20, 2006 - Chavez calls U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" in speech before U.N. General Assembly.
Dec. 3, 2006 - Re-elected to six-year term, capturing 63 percent of vote.
Sept. 12, 2008 - Chavez orders U.S. ambassador to leave Venezuela, accusing him of conspiring against government.
Feb. 15, 2009 - Wins referendum that allows him to run for re-election indefinitely and vows to remain in power for at least another decade.
June 10, 2011 - Chavez undergoes surgery in Cuba for pelvic abscess.
June 30, 2011 - Appears on television to confirm he had a cancerous tumor removed. Later says tumor was size of baseball.
July 4, 2011 - Returns to Venezuela, but travels to Cuba periodically for chemotherapy and medical tests.
Feb. 21, 2012 - Announces doctors found lesion in same place where tumor was removed; says he will return to Cuba for surgery.
July 9, 2012 - Says at a news conference that tests have shown he is "totally free" of cancer.
Oct. 7, 2012 - Wins another six-year term, beating challenger Henrique Capriles by an 11-point margin.
Dec. 9, 2012 - Announces that his cancer has returned and that he needs surgery again. Also says for the first time that if he is unable to stay on as president, Vice President Nicolas Maduro should take his place and be elected president.
Dec. 11, 2012 - Undergoes his fourth cancer-related operation in Cuba. Officials describe it as a complicated six-hour surgery.
March 5, 2013 - Government announces death of Hugo Chavez.