Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez lost his battle with cancer Tuesday, silencing the leading voice of the Latin American left and plunging his divided oil-rich nation into an uncertain future.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who struggled to hold back tears as he announced Chavez's death, said the government had deployed the armed forces and police "to accompany and protect our people and guarantee the peace."
Chavez had named Maduro as his heir, but the Venezuelan opposition is sure to press for fresh elections and tensions have been mounting over government allegations that its domestic rivals are in league with its foreign foes.
Shortly before Chavez's death was announced, Maduro and other top officials had accused Venezuela's enemies of somehow giving the 58-year-old leftist the cancer that eventually killed him, and two US military attaches were expelled.
Under the constitution, elections must be held within 30 days and National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello must take over on an interim basis, but Chavez had urged Venezuelans to vote for Maduro if he was unable to return.
Soldiers brought the Venezuelan flag down to half-staff at the Caracas military hospital, where senior figures in Chavez's 14-year-old administration gathered before the cameras of state television to break the news.
"We have received the toughest and tragic information that... comandante President Hugo Chavez died today at 4:25 pm," Maduro said.
"Long live Chavez!" the officials shouted at the end of his announcement.
Chavez had been 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 had disappeared from public view after he was flown to Cuba on December 10, an unprecedented absence from the public eye that fueled all manner of rumors.
The government 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.