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Hugo Chavez has left Venezuela deeply divided with an economy overly reliant on its huge oil wealth and riddled with corruption, much of the world's media warned on Wednesday, foreseeing a period of great instability after his death.
Chavez's death from cancer at 58 leaves a complex legacy for his successor, with elections expected in 30 days, newspapers and online sites said.
Yet few papers could deny his huge political impact in Venezuela and across the Latin American region.
The Venezuelan government's “clumsy” silence after Chavez's return on February 18 from Cuba, where he had spent more than two months for cancer surgery and treatment, left few people in doubt about his impending death, said Spain's leading daily El Pais.
Chavez stayed in power for 14 years, winning elections “with a mix of personal charisma, largesse in the use of oil money, populist rhetoric and an ability to convince many that their lives would be better thanks to the Bolivarian revolution,” the paper said.
Chavez's Bolivarian revolution, a socialist movement inspired by Venezuelan revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar, had promised economic independence and equality to the people.
“But it seems more than improbable that any successor will be able to stir enough support to make citizens tolerate for much longer the enormous financial imbalances, daily shortages, extensive corruption or rampant urban violence that afflict the Caribbean nation and that remain in place or are even worse after the late president's long reign,” El Pais said.
A rival Spanish daily, the conservative El Mundo, said Chavez's death had sown “paranoia” among Venezuelan leaders. Vice-President Nicolas Maduro had already made clear he believed there had been a “political assassination”, it said.
“Now begins an uncertain interim period,” El Mundo warned.
Rory Carroll, Guardian correspondent and author of “Commandante: Hugo Chavez's Venezuela”, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times headlined: “In the end, an awful manager.”
“Chavez was a brilliant politician and a disastrous ruler. He leaves Venezuela a ruin, and his death plunges its roughly 30 million citizens into profound uncertainty,” Carroll wrote.
The Washington Post's lead article described Chavez as “passionate but polarising.”
Some papers were more sympathetic, however.
Chavez's fierce anti-American rhetoric led him to fraternise with doubtful regimes such as those in Iran or Belarus, said the online edition of Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
“But the relationship between Latin America and the North was deeply changed by Caracas's repeated verbal attacks on Washington in recent years. Latin American states gained self-confidence,” the paper said.
In Britain, the left-leaning Guardian said Chavez had left a legacy of literacy and healthcare for the poor but also “crumbling infrastructure and dependence on oil”.
“Death will return Chavez to the spotlight. His funeral promises to be a vast, tumultuous affair of weeping throngs and foreign leaders' cavalcades,” the Guardian said.
The conservative Daily Telegraph was less forgiving, describing Chavez as a shrewd demagogue who combined “brash but intoxicating rhetorical gifts with a free spending of oil revenues to turn himself into a leading figure on the world stage.”
The Financial Times doubted Chavez's “revolution” would last.
“His legacy is a country riven by revolutionary rancour that suffers from weakened institutions and a diminished economy; a fuzzy political ideology akin to the Peronism of Argentina; yet also a population that has a stronger cultural sense of itself and a long overdue feeling of entitlement to better services among its poor,” the Financial Times said.
In Cuba, there was only effusive praise in the official press.
Chavez struck up a lasting friendship with Cuba's 86-year-old retired leader Fidel Castro.
“For all the true greats, time makes them greater rather than extinguishing them,” ran one of the headlines in Cuban state-run newspaper Granma along with a photo gallery of the Venezuelan leader's various encounters with Fidel Castro. - Sapa-AFP