Hardball with Chris Matthews, 3/4/13, 7:00 PM ET

The life and legacy of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez

The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson talks about the announcement of the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dead at 58

Updated

Hugo Chavez, the controversial and fiery socialist president of Venezuela, is dead after losing a two-year battle with cancer. The country’s Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced the president’s death Tuesday. He died at 4:25 p.m. at a military hospital in Caracas.

The 58-year-old president had been out of the public eye in the past few months, going to Cuba for cancer surgery in December 2012. He returned to Venezuela in February.

An emotional Maduro made the announcement on Venezuela television after saying earlier in the day that Chavez had a severe respiratory infection.

The feisty leader rose to power in 1999 and was popular at home–especially among the poor–winning re-election late last year. But Chavez, a former paratrooper who spent two years behind bars after leading a failed coup in 1992,  was frequently a thorn in the side of Washington, D.C. He continually branded the United States as imperialists.

The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, who met and knew Chavez, told Hardball the leader had “genuine popular support in the country, in a divided country, despite in a number of his policies, which we could consider— certainly because they are—anti-democratic.”

Under Chavez, the “Venezuelan economy suffered greatly, the freedom of the press suffered greatly under Hugo Chavez,” said Robinson. “But he provided services for the poor with a lot of Cuban assistance…medical attention that the poor of Venezuela hadn’t received before. Frankly, it was the first time in many decades that a leader had paid that kind of attention to the poor majority in Venezuela.”

He added that the big question now is which way the country will go politically: to pure ideology, Robinson said, or “toward a less  socialist, more Social Democratic sort of model that might edge it back into the better graces of the United States?”

The White House issued a statement from President Obama on Chavez’s death reaffirming its “support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.”

“As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights,” the statement continued.

NBC News’ Mark Potter explained that under the Venezuela constitution, an election must be held within 30 days. Until then, Maduro will serve as interim president.

The likely candidates, said Potter, are Maduro and Henrique Capriles, the right-wing candidate who lost to Chavez in October.

“If [Capriles] wins, it’s believed the relationship with the United States will be much better than what it is right now. But there is some hope if Maduro wins, given the bad relations between Venezuela and the U.S. over time, that there can be a softening, a warming up.”

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dead at 58

Updated