By Julian Pecquet - 03/05/13 10:10 PM EST
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has died of cancer, the country's vice president announced Tuesday in a tearful TV address.
The State Department on Tuesday reiterated its calls for a new election amid reports that Chávez had grown sicker. He was reelected to another six-year term in October.
“We have expressed sympathy for President Chávez's illness,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said. “Should he become permanently unavailable to serve, our understanding is that the Venezuelan constitution requires an election to select a new president, so, you know, the elections need to be free and fair, if they were to go forward, and we are in that situation.”
Chávez was first elected to power in 1998 as a 44-year-old lieutenant colonel from a working-class family, after having served two years in prison for a 1992 coup. He spent billions of dollars from the country's oil boom on aid for the poor and to prop up allies of his socialist regime, notably Cuba, angering Washington.
Relations with the United States deteriorated rapidly after the George W. Bush administration prematurely recognized a short-lived right-wing coup in 2002. In 2005, he told a TV interviewer: "If I am assassinated, there is only one person responsible: the president of the United States."
President Obama released a statement on Chávez's death.
"At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government. As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights."
Many lawmakers were not as diplomatic in their responses. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a longtime Chávez foe, lost no time in welcoming news of his death.
“For over a decade Chavez had used corruption, intimidation, manipulation, and brutal tactics to rule over the Venezuelan people,” she said in a statement. “Chavez misruled Venezuela with an iron grip on the government, economy, and the courts as he routinely bullied the media and the opposition to deny the people of Venezuela their basic freedoms. Today, his death marks the end of this tyrannical rule but the road to democracy for the Venezuelan people is still very much uncertain.”
She said his close ties to U.S. foes Iran, Syria and Cuba “threatened U.S. interests in the region and around the globe.”
Said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs: “Hugo Chavez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear. His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator."
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subpanel on the Western Hemisphere, expressed his “personal condolences” and called for a “peaceful and democratic transition, as called for in the Venezuelan constitution.”
“We stand ready to assist and support the people of Venezuela in ensuring peaceful, expeditious and transparent elections in keeping with the democratic values and traditions held by most of her neighbors in the Western Hemisphere,” he said.
"Hugo Chavez was a destabilizing force in Latin America, and an obstacle to progress in the region," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence panel. "I hope his death provides an opportunity for a new chapter in US-Venezuelan relations.”
Not all lawmakers were critical of the Venezuelan leader.
“Hugo Chavez was a leader that understood the needs of the poor,” tweeted Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.). “He was committed to empowering the powerless. R.I.P. Mr. President.”
Serrano represents the South Bronx, the poorest congressional district in the nation. He has accepted millions of dollars in oil wealth from Venezuela to help his district.
—Last updated at 6:28 p.m.