“It’s confronting the empire, and confronting evil. … And you end up relating to that gladiator,” Chavez said as he drove across Venezuela’s southern plains.
He said he felt a deep connection to those plains where he grew up, and that when died he hoped to be buried in the savanna.
“A man from the plains, from these great open spaces … tends to be a nomad, tends not to see barriers. You don’t see barriers from childhood on. What you see is the horizon,” Chavez said.
Chavez wasn’t shy about flaunting his government’s achievements, such as free health clinics staffed by Cuban doctors, new public housing and laptops for needy children.
But even Chavez acknowledged in 2011 that one of his government’s greatest weaknesses was a “lack of efficiency.” He called it “a big error that many times has put in danger the government’s policies.”
Running a revolution ultimately left little time for a personal life. His second marriage, to journalist Marisabel Rodriguez, deteriorated in the early years of his presidency, and they divorced in 2004. In addition to their one daughter, Rosines, Chavez had three children from his first marriage, which ended before he ran for office. His daughters Maria and Rosa often appeared at his side at official events and during his trips.
Chavez acknowledged after he was diagnosed with cancer in June 2011 that he had recklessly neglected his health. He had taken to staying up late and drinking as many as 40 cups of coffee a day. He regularly summoned his Cabinet ministers to the presidential palace late at night.
Even as he appeared with head shaved while undergoing chemotherapy, he never revealed the exact location of tumors that were removed from his pelvic region, or the exact type of cancer.
Chavez exerted himself for one final election campaign in 2012 after saying tests showed he was cancer-free, and defeated younger challenger Henrique Capriles. With another six-year term in hand, he promised to keep pressing for revolutionary changes.
But two months later, he went to Cuba for a fourth cancer-related surgery, blowing a kiss to his country as he boarded the plane.
After a 10-week absence, the government announced that Chavez had returned to Venezuela and was being treated at a military hospital in Caracas. He was never seen again in public.
In his final years, Chavez frequently said Venezuela was well on its way toward socialism, and at least in his mind, there was no turning back.
His political movement, however, was mostly a one-man phenomenon. Only three days before his final surgery, Chavez named Vice President Nicolas Maduro as his chosen successor.
Now, it will be up to Venezuelans to determine whether the Chavismo movement can survive, and how it will evolve, without the leader who inspired it.
Biographical information for this report was contributed by former Caracas bureau chief Ian James.