In any case, Chavez's death leaves the way ahead for his party and Bolivarian Revolution anything but certain.
Chavez was born July 28, 1954, to schoolteachers in Sabaneta, western Barinas state, and he knew poverty firsthand. He has told interviewers that as a boy he often went fishing with his father to put food on the table, and sold sweets in the town square to pay for his school supplies.
After giving up his dream of becoming a professional baseball player, Chavez entered the nation's military academy and was given an officer's commission after graduating in 1975. But he soon became disenchanted by what he saw as the corruption of army brass, and radicalized by having to hunt down leftist rebels who were fighting for the poor.
In 1982, Chavez formed a secret group with other disgruntled army officers and swore to someday cleanse the nation of corruption. His model was South America's "liberator," Simon Bolivar, who led independence movements from Spain in the early 19th century.
The Chavez-led group became more determined than ever to rebel after February 1989 riots called the Caracazo, which swept the capital, Caracas, after President Carlos Andres Perez tried to raise fuel prices and bus fares. Hundreds of impoverished protesters were killed by army units sent to suppress them.
Soon after taking command of a paratroop unit in Maracay, Chavez decided the time had come to act. In February 1992, he led 12,000 rebel troops who moved on several cities. But a communication breakdown and the failure to capture Perez in Caracas doomed the coup.
Chavez surrendered and spent two years in jail before being pardoned in 1994 by President Rafael Caldera. Chavez then decided on a democratic course and began the presidential campaign that would lead to victory at the polls in 1998.
Chavez became the youngest Venezuelan president in history when he took office in February 1999 at age 44. He secured a solid mandate with 56.5% of the vote by appealing to a broad spectrum of Venezuelans sick of corruption, and especially to the poor.
Later that year, 71% of voters approved a new constitution promoted by Chavez.
But his policies soon soured with the middle class and the nation's elites.
In April 2002, rebel military elements led by businessman Pedro Carmona launched a coup attempt against Chavez, who was held prisoner for two days. But loyal officers and legions of poor supporters outside the presidential palace turned the tide. Chavez later blamed the coup on support from President Bush, who seemed to tacitly welcome the uprising.
Within a year, the country was paralyzed by a series of strikes, including one by the state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela after Chavez fired the top management.
Since then, Chavez had led an increasingly polarized nation, using his oratorical skills to outmaneuver his often fragmented, sometimes hapless opposition. In 2004, he easily survived a recall referendum. Two years later he won a landslide reelection, with 63% of the vote.
To seal his most recent reelection triumph, Chavez used massive handouts including free appliances and even free housing partially financed by Chinese loans to help thump challenger Henrique Capriles by 10 percentage points.
Chavez's relations with the United States became less tense with the election of President Obama, who exchanged greetings with Chavez at the April 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
Analysts believe Chavez had little to gain in trashing Obama, who is popular in Latin America. The two nations are tied by oil: Venezuela was the fifth-largest exporter of oil to the U.S. in 2011, averaging shipments of just under 1 million barrels a day.
But bilateral relations are anything but cordial. The State Department has accused Chavez of not doing enough to combat drug trafficking, which has become a major scourge in Venezuela. And on Tuesday, Maduro expelled the U.S. Embassy's military attache, accusing him of vague "illegal activity that mocks international conventions.
Chavez, who was married and divorced twice, is survived by four children and three grandchildren, as well as his parents, Hugo and Helena, and five brothers.
Kraul and Mogollon are special correspondents.