"We have received the toughest and tragic information that... commandant
President Hugo Chavez died today at 4:25 pm," a tearful Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced on television, directly from a Caracas military hospital.
Maduro said that "the government had deployed the armed forces and police to accompany and protect our people and guarantee the peace."
For his part, the Venezuelan defense minister stated shortly after the announcement that "the Venezuelan armed forces will defend the constitution and respect the wishes of late President Hugo Chavez."
"We are united to fulfill and protect the precepts of the constitution and
the wishes of our leader, commander-in-chief Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias," Defense Minister Diego Molero said in Caracas, surrounded by top military officers.
The Latin American president had been checked into the hospital on February 18 to continue chemotherapy after two months in Cuba, where in December he had undergone his fourth round of cancer surgery since June 2011.
The symbol of Latin America's "anti-imperialist" left had disappeared from public view after having flown to Cuba on December 10, an unusual absence that fueled rumors about his health.
He was only been seen in a few photos released last month, which showed him in his Havana hospital bed, smiling with his two daughters at his side.
Chavez will be mourned by many of the country's poor, who revered the self-styled revolutionary for using the country's oil riches to fund popular housing, health, food and education programs.
The deceased president died five months after winning the October elections, and under Venezuela's constitution an election must be held within 30 days of the president's death.