Venezuela President Hugo Chavez died Tuesday at the age of 58, following a lengthy battle with cancer. As president of Venezuela for 14 years, Chavez was well known for his socialist policies, consolidation of power, and combative relationship with the United States. A polarizing figure whose fiery socialist rhetoric earned him allies and enemies throughout the world, Chavez implemented controversial economic policies – often including the seizure of private businesses – while initiating popular welfare programs throughout the country.
Gen. Jose Ornella was with Chavez during his final moments. He told The Associated Press afterwards that Chavez’s last words were a plea to live.
"He couldn't speak but he said it with his lips ... ‘I don't want to die. Please don't let me die,’ because he loved his country, he sacrificed himself for his country.”
Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, will step in as Venezuela’s interim president during the next 30 days. After that, an election will determine the new president.
Some analysts have suggested that U.S.-Venezuela relations might improve under Maduro, but mere hours after Chavez’s death Maduro was accusing “imperialist” enemies of infecting the president with cancer. The U.S. State Department has called allegations by Gen. Ornella and Vice President Maduro of foul play in the president’s death “absurd.”
Venezuela authorities have not said what kind of cancer afflicted Chavez, but Gen. Jose Ornella told reporters, “He suffered a lot.”
Gen. Wilmer Barrientos told local television viewers that the lengthy procession ahead of Chavez’s burial would allow citizens to pay their respects. “That way we will offer him the honor of a head of state accompanied by the people, the people who love him so much, who venerated him, who continue to venerate him,” he said. The streets of Caracas were flooded Thursday with tens of thousands of mourners.
Reactions to the death have been as extreme as the man himself. Several Hollywood celebrities including Sean Penn, Oliver Stone, and Michael Moore, lauded Chavez for his socialist policies and commitment to the people of Venezuela. "Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion," Penn said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, adding “Venezuela and its revolution will endure under the proven leadership of Vice President Maduro.”
A brief statement released by the White House reaffirmed support for the Venezuelan people during “this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing,” and reiterated the U.S. interest “in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government.” The White House is sending a delegation to the Venezuelan president’s funeral.
Syrian president Bashar Assad mourned the passing of Chavez, saying Wednesday, “the demise of this unique leader is as much a great loss for me personally and the Syrian people as it is for the people of Venezuela.”
Iranian president Ahmadinejad, too, expressed sadness over the death, adding a series of comments stating that “no doubt Chavez will return to Earth together with Jesus and the perfect Imam Mahdi,” and stating that he too is suspicious of the cause of Chavez’s cancer.
A State Department official told reporters on Wednesday that changes within U.S.-Venezuela relations are certainly possible following Chavez’s death.
“One of the things that happens over 14 years in a government like Venezuela is it really did revolve around one man. So while I’m hesitant to say that the change in an individual, or the passing of an individual, completely changes a relationship,” he said, adding, “he played an outsized role in that government and therefore his absence can have outsized implications.”
Boston Globe columnist Juliette Kayyem writes, “Chavez’s death creates an opportunity for the United States to finally make our relationships with our southern and Latin American neighbors less about their leaders and more about common interests and sound policies.”
Whether or not U.S.-Venezuela relations will improve in the wake of Chavez’s death, it’s possible that the country could become more open that it was under the polarizing dictator’s rule. Tourism in the South American country plummeted when Chavez rose to power, and has yet to attain pre-Chavez numbers. The country is beautiful – Amazonian rainforest sprawls over some 140,000 square miles, and exquisite beaches and the world’s tallest waterfall are among (brave) tourist destinations in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s murder rate, however, hovers among the top five in the world, making a surge of new tourists unlikely, at least for now.
Marco Salazar is the Latin America Research Analyst for market intelligence firm Euromonitor International. He says that the future after Chavez will be very difficult to predict, adding, “Venezuela is a destination that is rich in natural beauty with lots to offer visitors, but current conditions will continue to limit the tourism industry.”
Christians in Venezuela face some restrictions, and the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom has pointed to the curtailing of religious freedom in the country, noting “the government's failure to investigate and hold accountable perpetrators of attacks on religious leaders and houses of worship.” The report also referenced “rhetoric from President Hugo Chavez, government officials, state media, and pro-Chavez media directed at certain faith-based communities.”
Kristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at ReligionToday.com, where she focuses on global human rights and religious freedom issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran, and the plight of Syrian refugees. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin can be contacted via her website at kristinwright.net or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication date: March 7, 2013