Whether you loved him or hated him, it was hard not have an opinion on Hugo Chavez. Even in death, he continues to divide people. In the hours after he lost his long bout with cancer, the streets of Caracas were filled with citizens in mourning. Their somber expressions stood in sharp contrast to Venezuelan (and Cuban) expats in the US who celebrated into the evening.
It’s no surprise that international officials also varied in their reactions. The UN Secretary General, surprised by the news at an unrelated press conference, was the first outside of Venezuela to respond. Ban Ki-Moon offered his condolences and later put out an official statement which read:
President Chávez spoke to the challenges and aspirations of the most vulnerable Venezuelans. He provided decisive impetus for new regional integration movements, based on an eminently Latin American vision, while showing solidarity toward other nations in the hemisphere. His contribution to the current peace talks in Colombia between the Government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been of vital importance.
True. But Ban wasn’t the only one with nice things to say. The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin referred to Chavez as a friend, noting that, “he was a great politician for his country, Latin America and the world.”
It’s no surprise that so many Latin American leaders immediately came out to eulogize their fallen ally. The presidents of Argentina and Bolivia were among the first to announce that they would be heading to Caracas immediately. Chavez will lay in state for a few days before his funeral on Friday. His government has called for seven days of mourning.
Especially after the expulsion of US officials that was announced only hours earlier, it’s doubtful that anyone of note from the US will be sending flowers to the funeral. Not surprisingly, the White House offered no condolences in its carefully worded statement:
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. 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.
That was it. Reading between the lines, it’s hard not to assume the US government is happy he’s out of the picture. Of course, some members of Congress were more blunt and less ‘diplomatic’ in their choice of words. The chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs had this to say:
Hugo Chavez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear. His death dents the alliance of anti-US leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator.
Venezuela once had a strong democratic tradition and was close to the United States. Chavez’s death sets the stage for fresh elections. While not guaranteed, closer US relations with his key country in our Hemisphere are now possible.
Clearly Rep. Ed Royce is assuming that Nicolas Maduro has no hope of winning elections that will be held soon. Like most other US officials, he also glosses over all the improvements in Venezuela under Chavez’s 14 year rule. It’s the sort of thing we’re likely to hear a lot more of in the days ahead from US media outlets and officials. Howard Friedman summed it up well by saying:
American articles will talk about when Chavez led an attempted coup, they will talk about his friendship with Castro, Ahmadinejad, Putin and other leaders, and they will reference his famous “devil” quote about George Bush but they will steer away from hints of Chavez’s accomplishments.
Like any other leader, Chavez had his share of pluses and minuses. But there is little doubt that for the majority of Venezuelans (in Venezuela), living standards improved under his rule. It’s also easy to understand why so many were opposed to his policies that targeted the country’s less fortunate, and powerful international forces.
Like everyone else, my colleagues were divided in their response to his death – some were in tears, while others wanted to celebrate. Over the years (at work), I’ve tried my best to maintain the objectivity that is expected of me. Even though I’m not working at this moment, I don’t want to change that now… but I will say one thing: as a journalist, I will sincerely miss Hugo Chavez. When healthy, he was a constant source of controversy and entertainment; he was usually ‘fun’ to cover.
Of course, I said the same thing about George W. Bush after he left the White House… albeit for slightly different reasons.