By Marcia Braveboy
Caribbean News Now contributor
"I have the legitimacy afforded me by the people." -- Hugo Chavez 1954 – 2013
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- The sun has gone down on the life of one of the region’s most colourful leaders, with the death on Tuesday of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez at the young age of 58. His passing has sparked both grief and celebration in Venezuela and around the world.
Chavez’s very colourful and controversial leadership style will be missed by many. He was the kind of person whose death could make a loud noise and create a deep silence at the same time; both capable of hearing each other simultaneously.
On the ground, it was very difficult to find the everyday citizen that harbours indifference about Chavez; the layman either loved him or hated him. At the top of the hierarchical ladder, some of the world’s political and business elite enjoyed a friendship with Hugo Chavez, others did not want him for a friend, but they did not want him for an enemy either.
It was the enigmatic nature of Chavez that made him a man of mysterious and perplexing beauty.
Not just his family and friends, but Venezuela, the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean is mourning the death of the most firebrand leader the hemisphere has seen in recent history.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar said in a statement: “President Chávez will always be remembered for his vision for the future of his beloved country, for his unwavering commitment to reducing poverty among the dispossessed and for his determination to provide a dignified life to the beneficiaries of his populist programmes.”
Along with Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela has one of the world’s leading oil reserves, being the world’s fourth largest supplier. Both energy-rich nations and most of the Caribbean shared healthy bilateral relations with Venezuela for years.
Persad-Bissessar attended an historic inaugural summit in Venezuela in 2011 on an invitation from Chavez.
“I was honoured to attend the historic inaugural summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which President Chávez hosted in Caracas in December, 2011. I well recall his receptivity to Trinidad and Tobago’s proposal that the CELAC troika be expanded to a quartet to include a Caribbean voice.”
The fifth Summit of the Americas held in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009 became the subject of controversy when President Chavez hugged US President Barack Obama and presented him with a book. Right wing America flogged the president for encouraging Chavez’s embrace and accepting his gift. Obama replied that he is a reader and he will read the book presented to him by Chavez.
Former Trinidad foreign affairs chief, Paula Gopee-Scoon, who attended the summit with Chavez, said he related well with everyone at the hemispheric summit and was committed to the outcome of the event, and to the Latin American and Caribbean region as a whole. She extended her condolences to the people of Venezuela on the passing of their president, describing him as an exemplary leader, who was so much in touch with his people.
Persad-Bissessar said Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela is this year (2013) commemorating the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
“Venezuela is one of our strongest allies and our relationship remains solid,” said Persad-Bissessar.
In early February this year, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro told the Communist party newspaper Granma that the Venezuelan leader’s health condition was improving. Chavez had undergone nearly two months of surgery in Havana.
"We have to cure him. Chavez is very important for his country and for Latin America," said the frail looking 86-year-old Castro, who is himself being treated for his own health challenges.
It was not to be, Chavez was never able to return to his homeland by January 10 to be sworn in for a new term in office, which he won in the October 7, 2012, election.
According to Venezuela’s constitution, if the president dies in office, an election is to be called in 30 days, when the world will see a new president of Venezuela after Chavez’s 14-year reign.
Vice President Nicolas Madura, who the late president endorsed as his successor, is already seen as a favourite by the people to win the upcoming elections.
The Venezuelan Embassy in Trinidad and Tobago will be holding a wake for Chavez this Thursday night, when Venezuelans and T&T nationals will mourn and celebrate the life of Hugo Chavez. Several Latin American countries have declared three days of mourning for Chavez, while Venezuela will mourn his passing for seven days.
Chavez’s leadership style and non-conformity to just about everything was revered and reviled by the world. He was like a modern day Fidel Castro – spitting dissent on the great USA, resolutely resisting America’s political philosophies and its hold on global politics. Chavez was going to keep Venezuela free from the market policies of the US and he did. He did it his way. One must now wonder if the rise of the populism “Chavismo” is about to die with this fascinating world leader.
His death announcement was like a hymn of benediction to some American business tycoons who saw Chavez as a tyrant. The pundits and experts in the oil business could be seen on American television espousing their positions about whether or not Chavez’s death would mean better bilateral relations between America and Venezuela.
During his speech at the UN in September 2006, Chavez called then US President George W. Bush Jr. “the devil”. “Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here! Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of. Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world. Truly, as the owner of the world.”
Chavez also referred to former President Bush as a donkey and said he wasn’t very smart.
No doubt, Chavez was anti-America, anti imperialism, pro the working class and pro employment for the Venezuelan people; celebrated as a champion of the poor, a master of creating a working class state in Venezuela.
His anti-American world view was reverently respected in many quarters; in others, a disrespectful kind of respect was shown to the Latin American leader.
Chavez had a confrontation with several leading world figures in his political history, in which he prevailed, much to the chagrin of his opponents on every occasion. He even announced that America and the CIA were planning to kill him. “If I die, America killed me,” reported Chavez in a televised interview. But it was not America that killed him; his almost two-year bout with cancer is what ended his reign. Who would have thought that this eclipsing figure would have himself been eclipsed in that way?
His death was announced by Venezuela’s Vice President Nicolas Madura on Tuesday, who told the Venezuelan people in a public address that President Chavez died at 4:25pm on that day. Ironically, on the same day of the month another controversial world leader, the Soviet Union’s (now Russia) Joseph Stalin passed. Stalin himself was seen as a tyrant, a controversial and colourful leader in his time. Like Chavez, popular opinion of Stalin by the people of the Soviet Union and Russia is mixed.
The anti-capitalist world view which Chavez practiced is not new to Caribbean politics. Men like the Castro brothers have run a communist government in Cuba for more than half a century, enduring an American embargo for decades because of what is seen as Cuba’s non democratic political system. And Grenada’s own Maurice Bishop who was a close ally of Cuba ran a socialist government on the Spice Island in the early 1980s.
Looking at the gaps between the timings such colourful and controversial leaders entered the world stage; it does appear that the revolutionary leaders like Chavez and Castro wash up on our shores every twenty years.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua announced on Tuesday that Chavez’s funeral of will take place on Friday at the Military Academy of Caracas, and that seven days of national mourning have been decreed.
Meanwhile, in extending condolences on behalf of the people and government of Antigua and Barbuda, Prime Minister Dr Baldwin Spencer said that Chavez was a courageous, resilient man who believed in the equality of mankind and in the obligation of those in power to uplift those around them who had neither voice nor influence.
“In this vein, Hugo Chavez spent his life and his political career defending these values. His generosity and resourcefulness account for the income distribution in Venezuela becoming one of the fairest in Latin America. Moreover, his stewardship of important partnerships across the region translated to meaningful and longstanding social and infrastructural programmes, including the PetroCaribe initiative,” noted Spencer.
“The establishment of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) is testimony of his vision for the region. He believed that the future of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the world in general depended on our continued dialogue and active cooperation towards the ultimate goal of overcoming the many challenges confronting our world community,” he added.
In Barbados, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart also extended condolences to the government and people of Venezuela.
"The painful news of the death of President Chávez has touched us deeply in Barbados not only because of the nurturing of our long-standing friendly bilateral relations during the years of his presidency, but also because of the hope which he represented and his indefatigable dedication to the Venezuelan people.
“His noble crusade as a regionalist and his commitment to integration initiatives such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), and South-South cooperation in general, is testimony to his pivotal role in the history of the region's development and will secure a permanent place for him in the memory of the people of the region,” Stuart said.
A national state of mourning was declared in Dominica by Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, who described Chavez as a true friend of Dominica.
“Indeed he was Dominican in many respects,” Skerrit said.
“I am sure that in the days ahead several Caribbean leaders will speak to the social and economic benefits Dominica and the rest of the region derived from President Chavez's pro-Caribbean policies.
“I am sure there will be a chronicling of PetroCaribe, Alba and several such initiatives that were designed to improve relations between the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the English speaking Caribbean. The impact of these policies on the lives and wellbeing of Caribbean people will be recorded I am sure.
“Dominica will associate with all these tributes and acknowledgements, but above all, Dominica will cherish the special place it held in the life and work of President Hugo Chavez,” he added.
The government of Grenada said, “It is with deep sadness and a sense of loss that we learnt of the passing of a great man, a hero, a man for the people of Venezuela and, of Latin America and the Caribbean, President Hugo Chávez of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”
“Venezuela has been an astounding supporter of Grenada and its people … and the benefits from PetroCaribe have all been made possible for Grenada because of the love that President Chávez had for the Grenadian people.
“He was an amazing leader in the Latin American Community, especially through the organization of CELAC, he will be truly missed,” the statement read.
According to President Donald Ramotar, Chavez was a great friend of Guyana.
“During his tenure as president of Venezuela he sought to promote harmony and solidarity between our two nations. The peoples of Guyana and Venezuela have benefitted in great measure from an enhanced programme of bilateral co-operation as a result of President Chavez’s continental and internationalist approach to development. Our current warm and friendly relations are a testimony to his efforts and commitment. We will value always his sincerity and friendship,” Ramotar said.
Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller expressed deep and profound sadness, describing Chavez as “a faithful and avowed friend of Jamaica”.
The prime minister said that in the last few years, she had came to know President Chavez personally and found him to be “a sincere, jovial, and a very vociferous and committed leader in the defence of the rights and welfare of the most marginalized and vulnerable in the society and a fighter to correct inequalities in his country, the Americas, and the Caribbean region”.
“His ‘call for conscience’ and persistent efforts to introduce and maintain the operation of the PetroCaribe agreement is a living testimony of the high esteem in which President Chavez held the people of Jamaica and the region,” Simpson Miller said.
St Kitts and Nevis Prime Minister Dr Denzil Douglas said it is not only the people of Venezuela who now mourn the death of Chavez, but the region and the world who have lost a great statesman, “and will cherish the boldness with which he championed the causes of the poor.”
“Indeed, the impact of his social programmes has been felt not only in his own country, but has had a tremendous effect throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The Federation of St Kitts and Nevis has been a recipient of Hugo’s altruism, beneficence and generosity, evidenced through the Milagro Misión and the Petrocaribe Initiative,” Douglas said.
Secretary-general of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Irwin LaRocque described the late president of Venezuela as a “true friend” of the Community.
In a message of condolence to the government of Venezuela, the secretary-general said that Chavez “demonstrated solidarity with the governments and people of the Caribbean Community throughout his tenure and created avenues for co-operation and strengthening relations with the governments and improving the lives of the people.”