VENEZUELA is mourning the death of President Hugo Chavez, 58, who lost his battle with cancer. Its a great loss which has silenced the leading voice of the Latin American left and put the oil-rich nation on a path to early elections.
Vice President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro, struggled to stifle tears when he announced Mr Chavez's death. Venezuela, still divided after an acrimonious election in October 2012, declared a week of national mourning.Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said Chavez's successor Mr Maduro would take over as interim leader pending the next election, declaring: "It is the mandate that comandante President Hugo Chavez gave us."
Hundreds of supporters crowded in front of the military hospital where Chavez died, weeping and shouting "We are all Chavez!" and "Chavez lives!" as soldiers guarded the gate. His body will be taken to a military academy, where he will lie in state until a memorial service with world leaders.
Soldiers brought the Venezuelan flag down to half-staff at the military hospital, where senior figures in Mr Chavez's 14-year-old administration gathered before the cameras of state television as Maduro broke the news. "Long live Chavez!" the officials shouted at the end of his announcement.
Defence Minister Diego Molero, surrounded by top military officers, said the armed forces would defend the constitution and respect Mr Chavez's wishes. Mr Chavez had checked into the hospital on February 18 for a course of chemotherapy after spending two months in Cuba, where in December he had undergone his fourth round of cancer surgery since June 2011.
The once ubiquitous symbol of Latin America's "anti-imperialist" left disappeared from public view after he was flown to Cuba on December 10, an unprecedented absence that fueled all manner of rumors. The government had sent mixed signals about the president's health for weeks, warning one day that he was battling for his life, yet insisting as recently as last weekend that he was still in charge and giving orders.
And the opposition repeatedly accused the government of lying about the president's condition. A new election could offer another shot at the presidency to Henrique Capriles, the opposition leader who lost to mr Chavez in October.
Cuba, Venezuela's closest ally, declared its own mourning period for a leader who helped prop up their country's economy with cheap fuel and cash transfers, and dubbed Mr Chavez a "true son" of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
But US President Barack Obama - often a target of Mr Chavez's anti-American scorn - was circumspect, pledging the United States would support the "Venezuelan people" and describing Mr Chavez's passing as a "challenging time."