AFTER struggling for several months with cancer – the form of which was never fully disclosed – Hugo Chavez, the firebrand president of Venezuela and former soldier, has finally succumbed. He died at the age of 58 in a Caracas military hospital.
While his death will end months of suspense that has cast a shadow of uncertainty across both his country and its leftist allies in the region, it now also plunges one of the world's leading petro-nations into what is certain to be a pitched political struggle.
Not that the socialist state machine that Mr Chavez led has not had time to prepare. After winning a third term as president last October, Mr Chavez abruptly declared on 10 December that he was again in the grip of the cancer that was first diagnosed in July 2011.
The next day, after a tearful national television broadcast, he vanished to Cuba for treatment. He was never to be seen publicly again.
The death of one of Latin America's most egotistical and polarising leaders was announced on national television by Vice-President Nicholas Maduro, who is now expected to fight in elections to succeed him. Mr Chavez, he told a shocked nation, had died "after battling a tough illness for nearly two years".
The prolonged absence of Mr Chavez had already caused political turmoil, notably since his failure to turn up for his own inauguration in Caracas in January.
Against furious remonstrations from the opposition, the government insisted at the time that the leader was still in charge of the nation from his hospital bed in Havana and he remained president in spite of not actually being sworn in.
Opposition patience with this arrangement had been wearing extremely thin.
In mid-February, the government allowed the first pictures of Mr Chavez to be published that showed him in his hospital cot. Shortly thereafter he was flown in the dead of night to Caracas, where he was installed in the main military hospital.
The constitution now demands that elections be held across the country within 30 days to elect a new president.
Mr Chavez's death comes at a time of deep uncertainty for Venezuela. Oil prices have fluctuation while inflation and violent crime have soared to levels not seen in other Latin American countries.
Mr Chavez leaves a population riven down the middle and most of the support for Mr Maduro is likely to come from the poorer masses who have benefited from huge government health, housing and education programmes.
While Mr Maduro will doubtless proclaim his intention to prolong and build on the socialist revolution begun by Mr Chavez, the opposition has a more viable leader to run against him than might have been the case before.
Henrique Capriles, a provincial governor, built a wide base of support fighting in the last presidential contest.
Between now and the election the leader of the National Congress, Diosdado Cabello, would normally be expected to assume the interim presidency.
The announcement came just hours after Mr Maduro announced the government had expelled two US diplomats.
The vice-president said: "We have no doubt" that Mr Chavez's cancer had somehow been induced by foul play by "the historical enemies of our homeland".
The comments caused some to wonder if Mr Maduro was setting up a confrontation with the US as an excuse to delay elections.
President Michael D Higgins said he was "very sorry" to hear of the death.
He said: "President Chavez achieved a great deal during his term in office, particularly in the area of social development and poverty reduction.
"I extend my sincere condolences to the family of President Chavez on their great loss. My thoughts and best wishes are also with the people of Venezuela as they come to terms with this sad news."