In Chavez’s death, Obama sees hope for ‘new chapter’

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

Updated from 7:49 p.m. March 5

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the show-stopping socialist who once dubbed then-President George W. Bush "the devil" and scorned President Barack Obama as a "clown," probably won't be missed much in official Washington. Obama led a chorus of politicians saying they hoped that Chavez's death on Tuesday after a two-year battle with cancer would open a "new chapter" in relations between the United States and one of the world's top 20 oil exporters.

"At this challenging time," Obama said in a written statement hours after Chavez's death was announced, "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," Obama said.

Over the course of 14 years in power, Chavez won the adoration of Venezuela's poor by channeling the country's oil wealth into ambitious social spending. But he earned the loathing of the country's middle and upper classes by nationalizing key industries and consolidating his power, critics charged, at the expense of democratic institutions. Chavez, sometimes dubbed the "Comandante," angered the United States by embracing countries like Iran and offering his full-throated support to the Castro government in Cuba. American officials often accused him of funneling money to leftist rebels in neighboring Colombia, a close U.S. ally.

And Chavez reciprocated that lack of affection.

In September 2006, the fiery orator addressed the U.N. General Assembly one day after Bush had done so. Chavez declared "the devil was in this very spot yesterday," crossed himself and added "it smells of sulfur still today."

And he wasn't much kinder to Bush's successor. In December 2011, Obama scolded Chavez for assaulting "democratic values" and rebuked him for seeking closer ties to Iran. Chavez's response? He dubbed Obama a "clown" and an "embarrassment," and declared: “Focus on governing your country, which you’ve turned into a disaster."

But with Chavez now gone, American officials worried about the prospect of chaos in Venezuela and disruptions to oil markets, while openly hoping for better relations with Caracas.

“Hugo Chavez was a destabilizing force in Latin America and an obstacle to progress in the region," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said in a statement. "I hope his death provides an opportunity for a new chapter in U.S.-Venezuelan relations.”

"I hope the transition is one that is smooth and we would develop a better relationship with Venezuela," Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada told Yahoo News.

"I've been to Venezuela. I've been to Caracas. It's a wonderful country, and I really hope that stable leadership follows and leadership that the United States can work with and be helpful to," Democratic Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein of California told Yahoo News. "The polarization between our countries that was a product of Chavez was not helpful, and hopefully it can end."

Among the questions being asked in Washington: What will Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who announced Chavez's death to the world, do now? Will he pursue the style and substance of "Chavismo"? Will Venezuela still stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Castro-ruled Cuba? Can Madura fend off the considerable opposition to Chavez, especially given that the president's death hardly came as a shock?

"It was no surprise. He was in grave medical shape, and I understand they have 30 days until they have another election so it could be a time of real change in that country," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate.

Other lawmakers were a bit more vocal in denouncing Chavez. Republican Ed Royce of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called the deceased "a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear" and bluntly declared "good riddance."

"Venezuela once had a strong democratic tradition and was close to the United States," Royce said. "Chavez's death sets the stage for fresh elections. While not guaranteed, closer U.S. relations with this key country in our hemisphere are now possible."

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, considered a leading prospect for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016, said Chavez’s death could let Venezuela “turn the page on one of the darkest periods in its history.”

He added, “It is my sincere hope that Venezuela's leaders will seek to rebuild our once-strong friendship based on shared democratic and free enterprise principles."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez said Chavez had ruled "with an iron hand" but now "left a political void."

"With free and fair elections, Venezuela can begin to restore its once-robust democracy and ensure respect for the human, political and civil rights of its people,” Menendez said.

Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on Menendez's committee, said, "It is my hope that all Venezuelans will have the opportunity to fully exercise their political rights, including freedom of expression and assembly, in fully free and fair constitutionally mandated elections and build a more prosperous future for their country."

Chavez was not universally reviled in the United States, however.

Democratic Rep. José Serrano said on Twitter that Chavez “understood the needs of the poor” and praised him for “empowering the powerless.”

He added, “R.I.P Mr. President."

Chavez was an active Twitter user himself. His final message was full of trademark defiance—though some might say delusion.

In a Feb. 18, 2013, tweet, Chavez declared, “I remain firm in Christ and trust in my doctors and nurses. Onwards to victory! We will live and we will triumph!”

While Washington liked to portray Chavez as an isolated rogue, the truth is that his brand of populism had broad appeal across the region. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff called his death an “irreparable loss” and praised him as “a friend of the Brazilian people” and a “great Latin American.” President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, whose country for years had accused Chavez of backing leftist rebels on its territory, praised him for working to end that conflict.

I deeply lament the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez,” said Santos. “For Colombia, and for me in particular, the loss of President Chavez has special meaning.”

Chris Moody contributed to this report.