Hugo Chavez's folksy charm and forceful personality made him an extraordinary politician. His enviable ability to win a mass following allowed him to build a powerful political machine that kept him in office from February of 1999 until his death on Tuesday.
Dead at 58, Chavez leaves behind a country in far worse condition than it was when he became president, its future clouded by rivals for succession in a constitutional crisis and an economy in chaos.
His skillful rhetoric, which filled supporters with utopian dreams, was used to justify the methodical destruction of democratic institutions and the free market.
Soon after coming to office, he rewrote the constitution and aggressively set out to rig elections and stifle adversaries in the legislative branch and the courts. He turned his fire on the independent news media, eventually silencing most voices.
His regime gave rise to enormous corruption and the creation of a new class of greedy oligarchs. In an energy-rich country, electrical shortages are frequent, the result of Chavez's plundering of the public oil company. In a country that once enjoyed a thriving free market, prices are controlled and food often scarce.
In recent weeks, while Chavez was hospitalized, Venezuela was once again forced to devalue its currency, this time by one-third. This was the outcome of a series of disastrous economic decisions that included nationalizing the telephone company and other utilities. For Venezuelans, the worst aspect of the Chavez years was the soaring crime rate, with nearly 20,000 murders recorded in 2011 and a homicide rate some experts say is four times greater than before Chavez took power.
The president's death means a new election. Under Chavez, the electoral machinery was stacked against the opposition and that will doubtless be the case again, but the United States and democracies throughout the hemisphere should insist on a fair and transparent process to select the new president.