In the following years, the charismatic Chavez rattled off a string of electoral victories that made him seem almost invincible.
He won re-election in 2000, survived a recall election in 2004, and won another six-year term in 2006.
Chavez secured another re-election victory in October, describing his win as "a perfect battle, and totally democratic." He vowed to "be a better president every day."
A turning point for Chavez came in April 2002, when a coup briefly removed him from office.
But the interim government couldn't consolidate power, and within 48 hours, with the help of the military, Chavez returned to power.
While short-lived, the coup had a profound effect on Chavez, who took a more accelerated authoritarian and leftist turn afterward.
Human Rights Watch wrote in 2010 that the coup provided a pretext for policies that undercut human rights.
"Discrimination on political grounds has been a defining feature of the Chavez presidency," the report concluded.
"At times, the president himself has openly endorsed acts of discrimination. More generally, he has encouraged his subordinates to engage in discrimination by routinely denouncing his critics as anti-democratic conspirators and coup-mongers -- regardless of whether or not they had any connection to the 2002 coup," the report said.
He clamped down on broadcasters, other media
Consolidation of power in the presidency -- to the detriment of separation of powers -- became a theme in Chavez's policies.
Another challenge to Chavez's rule followed the coup. From December 2002 to February 2003, a crippling general strike pressured the president. The economy took a hit, but Chavez outlasted the strikers.
The following year, in 2004, the opposition gathered enough signatures to hold a recall referendum on Chavez, but again, the president survived.
Chavez's vitriol toward the United States also increased in the period after the brief coup because Washington had tacitly approved it.
In one of his most memorable insults, Chavez said of Bush in 2006 before the U.N. General Assembly:
"The devil came here yesterday. And it smells of sulfur still today."
In 2007, Chavez tasted defeat for the first time, in a referendum seeking approval for constitutional reforms that would have deepened his socialist policies. Nonetheless, thanks to a National Assembly friendly to him, Chavez achieved some of his goals, including indefinite re-election.
That same year, Chavez created a new political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, which merged his party with several other leftist parties.
His detractors accused him of being authoritarian, populist and even dictatorial for having pushed through a constitutional reform that allowed indefinite re-election.
Increasingly, Chavez used legislation to clamp down on broadcasters and other media. His government relentlessly went after opposition broadcaster Globovision, accusing it of a number of violations, from failure to pay taxes to disregarding a media responsibility law.
The broadcaster is the last remaining TV network that carries an anti-Chavez line, since the president refused to renew the license of another opposition station, RCTV, allegedly over telecommunication regulation violations. The station had to go off public airwaves and transmit solely on cable.
Abroad, Chavez was also known for his colorful -- if sometimes strange -- statements.
Last year, after several Latin American leaders were diagnosed with cancer, himself included, he wondered if the United States was behind it.
"Would it be strange if (the United States) had developed a technology to induce cancer, and for no one to know it?" he asked.
During a water shortage that Venezuela suffered in 2009, he took to the airwaves to encourage Venezuelans to take showers that lasted only three minutes.
At a summit in 2007, his repeated attempts to interrupt resulted in King Juan Carlos of Spain saying to him, "Why don't you shut up?"
Chavez was a believer that the days of the "Washington consensus," a model of economic reforms favored by the United States for developing countries, were over.
Along with Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and some Caribbean countries, Chavez formed the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA, a group intended to offer an alternative to U.S. influence in the region.
As president, Chavez made clear his ambitions of being a regional and international leader who left, in his own way, changes that awakened passions and feelings in favor and against -- everything except indifference.