Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dies
March 5, 2013 -- Updated 2326 GMT (0726 HKT)
Army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, who led a 1992 attempted coup, speaks to reporters on March 26, 1994, after he was freed from jail. Chavez was freed after charges were dropped against him for leading the first of two attempted coups against the government of former President Carlos Andres Perez, who was later removed from office.
Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's vocal leader
- NEW: Venezuela's defense minister says troops are deploying to ensure safety
- Chavez died Tuesday afternoon, Vice President Nicolas Maduro says
- "We must unite now more than ever," Maduro says
- Plans for Chavez's funeral will be announced in the coming hours, he says
In a national broadcast, Maduro said Chavez died Tuesday at 4:25 p.m. (3:55 p.m. ET).
Flanked by Cabinet ministers, Maduro teared up as he announced the news.
"We must unite now more than ever," he said, calling on Venezuelans to remain peaceful and respectful.
In the coming hours, Maduro said, plans for Chavez's funeral would be announced.
He did not specify when elections would be held.
"Our people can count on having a government of men and women committed to protecting them," Maduro said.
The announcement came hours after Maduro met with the country's top political and military leaders about Chavez's worsening health condition and suggested someone may have deliberately infected Chavez with cancer.
Venezuela's defense minister echoed Maduro's calls for unity and peace.
Adm. Diego Molero said Venezuela's military is in a "process of deploying ... to ensure the safety of all Venezuelans" and support the country's constitution in the wake of Chavez's death.
Molero pledged support to Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, two top officials who were close allies of the Venezuelan president.
Chavez first announced his cancer diagnosis in June 2011, but the government never revealed details about his prognosis or specified what kind of cancer he had.
He died nearly three months after his last public appearance. The president was known for his frequent television broadcasts and lengthy speeches.
Shortly before his last trip to Cuba for cancer surgery, Chavez tapped Maduro as his replacement "if something were to happen that would incapacitate me" and called for voters to support him.
"My firm opinion, as clear as the full moon -- irrevocable, absolute, total -- is ... that you elect Nicolas Maduro as president," Chavez said in early December, waving a copy of the Venezuelan Constitution as he spoke. "I ask this of you from my heart. He is one of the young leaders with the greatest ability to continue, if I cannot."
Word of Chavez's death drew swift expressions of sorrow and solidarity from regional allies.
"The national government expresses its solidarity in light of this irreparable loss that puts the Venezuelan people and all the region in mourning and at the same time sends its heartfelt condolences to the family of the late champion of Latin America," Ecuador's foreign ministry said in a statement.
But longtime critics of the controversial president offered a different take.
"Hugo Chavez was a destabilizing force in Latin America, and an obstacle to progress in the region," said U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "I hope his death provides an opportunity for a new chapter in U.S.-Venezuelan relations."
Venezuela-U.S. relations surge into spotlight
Just hours before the announcement of Chavez's death, relations between the two countries appeared to be souring, as Venezuelan officials said they were expelling two U.S. Embassy officials and accused them of plotting to destabilize the country.
The U.S. officials, both air attaches at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, are accused of having meetings with members of the Venezuelan military and encouraging them to pursue "destabilizing projects," Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said.
"We will not allow any foreign interference in our country," Jaua said. "Do not think that the situation of pain over the health of President Chavez will translate into weakness."
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell, speaking before the announcement of Chavez's death, denied the accusations.
"Notwithstanding the significant differences between our governments, we continue to believe it important to seek a functional and more productive relationship with Venezuela based on issues of mutual interest," he said. "This fallacious assertion of inappropriate U.S. action leads us to conclude that, unfortunately, the current Venezuelan government is not interested an improved relationship."
A Pentagon spokesman confirmed that two air attaches had been expelled from Venezuela. Air Force Col. David Delmonaco was on his way back to the United States on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale said. Assistant Air Attache Devlin Costal had been in the United States for training and will not return to Venezuela, Breasseale said.
After announcing the expulsion of one attache, Maduro -- addressing the media in a lengthy statement -- asserted that someday there will be "scientific proof" that Chavez was somehow infected by outsiders.
"An assertion that the United States was somehow involved in causing President Chavez's illness is absurd, and we definitively reject it," Ventrell said.
It isn't the first time that a Venezuelan government official has implied that a plot could be behind Chavez's cancer.
Chavez made the assertion himself in 2011, saying at a military event in Caracas that he wondered whether the United States could be infecting Latin American leaders with the illness.