Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez died Tuesday afternoon after a long battle with cancer, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said.
Flanked by Cabinet ministers, Maduro teared up as he announced the news in a national broadcast.
“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.
Maduro said Chavez died Tuesday at 4:25 p.m. (3:55 p.m. ET). He did not specify when elections would be held, or who would run the country in the meantime.
“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 to 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 in December, Chavez tapped Maduro as the man he wanted to replace him.
“He is one of the young leaders with the greatest ability to continue, if I cannot,” Chavez said.
Maduro made no mention of running for election in his public comments Tuesday, but he is widely expected to be the United Socialist Party of Venezuela’s candidate for the job.
After the announcement of Chavez’s death, state-run VTV showed images of people in the streets of Caracas crying and carrying posters with the late president’s picture.
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.
Bolivian President Evo Morales’ voice cracked as he spoke to reporters, describing Chavez as someone “who gave all his life for the liberation of the Venezuelan people … of all the anti-imperialists and anti-capitalists of the world.”
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 Kostal 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.
CNN’s Mariano Castillo, Dana Ford, Juan Carlos Lopez, Ione Molinares and Pam Benson and journalist Osmary Hernandez contributed to this report.
Catherine E. Shoichet | CNN