Venezuelan president changed nation, had rocky relations with bishops

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic - Hugo Chavez, a socialist president who transformed Venezuela while acting as chief protagonist in what was one of the worst Catholic Church-government relationships in Latin America, died March 5. He was 58.

Chavez died of complications from a respiratory infection nearly two years and four surgeries after his cancer diagnosis was made public. He flew to Cuba for his fourth surgery in early December and developed post-surgical complications, including bleeding and a lung infection, doctors said.

Last April 5, Holy Thursday, shortly before his third surgery for cancer, Chavez attended a Catholic Mass in Barinas, the state in western Venezuela where he was born and where his brother, Adan Chavez Frias, is now governor. Wearing a rosary and dressed in a blue and white tracksuit, Chavez pleaded for his life.

"I ask God to give me life, however painful. I can carry 100 crosses, Your crown of thorns, but don't take me yet. I still have things to do," he said, according to press reports. Catholic leaders spoke of Chavez's relationship with the church and his legacy for Venezuelans.

"The people of Venezuela held him up, considered him a public leader that they felt a connection to; someone they were close with," said Auxiliary Bishop Jesus Gonzalez de Zarate of Caracas, secretary-general of the Venezuelan bishops' conference. There was "great hope for his recovery and that he would serve his third term."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970