He stirred nationalistic sentiment and popularity by picking fights with the "imperialist" United States and its allies among the Venezuelan opposition. He used his combative speeches to drive a wedge between the working class and the elite in his country.
One former high-ranking U.S. State Department official recalled a meeting with Chavez in the early 2000s where the two sides had a "fairly good" conversation.
"In person, one-on-one, he can be very charming. He's smart; he can be accommodating," the former official said.
But immediately after the productive meeting, Chavez appeared on television, "totally mischaracterizing" the conversation.
It was a Chavez trait that U.S. officials saw repeatedly.
"He just gets carried away. There's something that animates him, and he moves into this demagogic, accusatory mode," the former official said.
But Chavez's fiery and divisive style is not assured to become a hallmark of future leaders, even if his party retains power.
"It's a classic problem of a charismatic leader," the former State Department official said. "His authority is based on his personal appeal to his supporters, and there are very few people who would be able to replace him."
Just as important as the things he changed are the things Chavez didn't change.
Under his watch, the country's dependence on oil revenue continued. A new model of state capitalism didn't bring to fruition the promises of a revived economy. The government institutions, which were weak before Chavez, are politicized now but remain weak.
The fruits of Chavez's legacy, for good or bad, have not changed the course of Venezuela as dramatically as his public relations machine portrays.
Those who have studied Venezuela agree: Before Chavez, there were already oil funds being diverted to the poor. There was already the nationalization of some industries. There was always corruption and weak governmental bodies.
Chavez enhanced some of these policies and repackaged others and added his own anti-American flare to it.
"I don't think he's been as much of an innovator as people seem to say, because there is a history of redistributive politics in Venezuela," the former State Department official said.
Most of what Chavez has accomplished can be undone, even if not overnight, the analysts said.
"This is simply a sad situation where there was a lot of promise and a lot of hope and a lot of possibilities, but his appetite for power and disdain for institutions has made it unsuccessful," Shifter said.