Latin American leaders mourned the death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as U.S. President Barack Obama said it creates a chance to build a constructive relationship between the two countries.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, who came to power with Chavez’s support, struggled through his speech in La Paz, his voice breaking as he declared seven days of official mourning. In Brazil, the region’s biggest economy, President Dilma Rousseff said Latin America’s poor lost an important ally, and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto sent his condolences to Chavez’s family and the Venezuelan people via Twitter.
The tone struck by Latin America’s leaders contrasted with the one emerging from Washington, where Obama said Chavez’s death opens “a new chapter” for Venezuela and that the U.S. wants a better relationship with the nation.
“At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House.
Chavez, the self-declared socialist who transformed Venezuelan politics by channeling record oil revenue to the poor, nationalizing corporations and vilifying foes as U.S. imperialist puppets, died yesterday at the age of 58.
His body was carried through the streets of Caracas to the military academy today, where he will remain for three days of public viewing before a funeral on March 8, Foreign Minister Elias Jaua said yesterday. Venezuela has declared seven days of mourning. Bolivia’s Morales arrived in Caracas today and marched alongside Chavez’s coffin, according to images broadcast on state television.
Some U.S. leaders welcomed Chavez’s death. Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said Chavez was “a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear,” and said his passing is an opportunity for closer U.S. ties.
“His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America,” Royce said in an e-mailed statement. “Good riddance to this dictator.”
The U.S. is planning to send a delegation to the funeral, two officials in the Department of State, who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly, said today.
“We stand ready to support Venezuela during this period,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson said today in an e-mailed statement. “Part of moving forward will be the election of a new president, which should be carried out in accordance with Venezuela’s commitments to the hemisphere’s high democratic standards.”
Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos, who said last year that his country and Venezuela had been thinking of war before he took steps to improve relations at the start of his term in 2010, thanked Chavez for “dedication without limit” toward achieving a peace process with Colombia.
“Everyone knows that we had a lot of differences in our economic vision, in our governing style, in our understanding of social progress,” Santos said. “But from the first days of my presidency we decided to put aside these differences to concentrate on the greater good of Venezuela and of Colombia.”
The response from Chavez’s neighbors is typical of Latin America’s historic reaction to leadership changes, said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a New York-based business organization. Farnsworth also worked at the White House on issues affecting the region during the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton.
“Latin America is very adept at pulling together to show solidarity when countries go through changes like this,” he said in a telephone interview. “It almost doesn’t matter if Chavez was from the left or the right.”
The U.S. reaction “has to be nuanced, because if it comes off as too much advocating a certain direction in Venezuela, that could backfire,” Farnsworth said.
Belarus declared three days of mourning, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said today he lamented the loss of a “brother and friend.”
Chavez “will be back alongside all the righteous and Jesus Christ and all those who are pure and help the human society to establish peace, justice and kindness,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said today, adding that he may attend the funeral in Caracas.
Chinese leaders including President Hu Jintao and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping sent their condolences over Chavez’s death, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said today, adding that Chavez was “a great friend of China.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his “deep condolences” to the Venezuelan people and Vice President Nicolas Maduro, the Kremlin said today in a statement.
OAO Rosneft Chief Executive Officer Igor Sechin, who sported a Chavez-emblazoned T-shirt during a trip to Venezuela last year, will lead a Russian delegation to the funeral, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Putin, said by phone today.
In Brazil, Rousseff praised Chavez as “a generous man to all the people in this continent who needed him” and marked his death with a moment of silence. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera recalled Chavez as a man who “was profoundly committed to the integration of Latin America,” according to a statement on the government website. Peru’s leader, Ollanta Humala, bid goodbye to “comandante and friend Hugo Chavez” on his Twitter account.
The biggest reaction came from the group known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, or Alba, which was formed by Chavez to counter U.S. influence in the region. It includes Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua.
Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega called on supporters to rally in the capital of Managua to remember Chavez, while Cuba, where Chavez had received cancer treatment, interrupted its normal television programs to discuss Chavez’s life.
Morales praised Chavez for giving his life to free Venezuelans and all people across Latin American.
“It hurts,” he said of Chavez’s death. “We’re destroyed.”
Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa declared three days of mourning to mark Chavez’s death, saying the leader’s “greatness” will continue to inspire “irreversible revolutions” in Latin America.
“Those who fight and die for life can’t be called the dead and Hugo will remain more alive than ever,” Correa said yesterday in a speech at the presidential palace in Quito.
Cuba’s government praised Chavez’s goal of uniting the people of Latin America and pledged loyalty to the continuation of his Bolivarian Revolution, according to the statement in the state-run Granma website.
Venezuela sells oil to the island nation below market prices, while Cuba sends doctors and other professionals to work in Venezuela. Chavez underwent four operations for an undisclosed form of cancer in Cuba before his death.
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