President Hugo Chavez Dies: Caribbean Nations Have Lost A Great Friend

Hugo Chavez

CARACAS, Venezuela, Tuesday March 5, 2013

President Hugo Chavez died Tuesday afternoon,  less than a month after returning from receiving cancer treatment in Cuba. Mr. Chavez, 58, who had not appeared in public since returning from Havana, died after a lengthy struggle with cancer.

Chavez first underwent surgery in Cuba in June 2011 to remove what he described was a baseball-size tumor from his pelvic region. Most recently he was suffering a severe respiratory infection following the latest round of surgery and chemo therapy in Cuba.

The Venezuelan leader was a survivor who as an army paratroop commander led a failed coup in 1992, was pardoned and then elected president in 1998. He also survived a coup against his presidency in 2002 and was re-elected twice.

The announcement of Mr. Chavez's' death was made by Vice President Nicolás Maduro, Mr. Chavez's immediate successor, who was close to tears with his voice cracking.

Maduro and other officials had gone to the military hospital where Mr. Chávez was being treated, when “we received the hardest and most tragic information that we could transmit to our people.”

As darkness fell, somber crowds congregated in the main square of Caracas and at the military hospital.  Men and women wept openly. Stores and shopping malls  closed, and police officers and soldiers were highly visible. 

Amidst the tumult in the capital, there was news that the government was throwing out two American military attachés that it accused of sowing disorder. 

Mr. Chavez's death raises questions about the future of his socialist Bolivarian revolution, Venezuela's relationship with the United States, and Venezuela's prominent role in the Caribbean Basin and Latin America.

There are those who will say Hugo Chavez leaves behind a deeply divided nation but that depends on which divide one focuses on.

Before Chavez, Venezuela was one of the world’s most unequal societies. Seventy percent of the Venezuelan population lived in poverty in 1995, three years before Hugo Chavez came to power. Chavez leaves behind a nation that has the fairest income distribution in Latin America.

Although President Chavez used a lot of revolutionary rhetoric during the campaign leading up to his first term in office he established a relatively moderate government and even appointed a number of conservatives to political positions.

His economic policies were largely guided by the dictates of the International Monetary Fund. And he made an effort to encourage global corporations to invest in Venezuela.

Simultaneously, he initiated social reform programs. He also invested in rebuilding Venezuela's decrepit social infrastructure and in setting up medical care and subsidized food programs for the poor.

To maintain effective communications with the population, Chavez set up weekly shows on television and radio to explain his policies, during which citizens were encouraged to call in and question him directly.

It was only after the attempted coup that ousted him for two days in April 2002, in which the US was implicated, that Chavez took a much more strident turn in defense of his socialist revolution.

Throughout his subsequent rule, he stridently confronted the United States policies punctuated by his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on the 20 of September 2006. Referring to US President George Bush who spoke the day before, he said, " The devil came here yesterday...and it smells of sulfur today." 

His speech heightened the confrontational atmosphere that existed between Venezuela and the United states and resulted in sharp bipartisan condemnation by US political officials. 

Nancy Pelosi, a democrat from California, the incoming Speaker of the US House of Representatives and an ardent critic of President Bush, called Chávez an "everyday thug" as opposed to the "modern day Simón Bolívar" that he "fancies himself to be."


Hugo Chavez: Speech to the United Nations General Assembly, on 20 September 2006

But Mr. Chavez became hugely popular in the Caribbean where he has been a benefactor and lifeline in recent years for its struggling economies.

The Venezuelan leader develop unprecedented close relationships with the English-speaking Caribbean through his Petro Caribe oil initiative which provided access to subsidized Venezuelan oil on extremely favorable terms and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America (ALBA), an international cooperation organization based on the idea of the social, political and economic integration of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Many Caribbean countries have benefited from Hugo Chavez’s policies in relation to Petro Caribe and ALBA and, without the deferred payment deal under Petro Caribe, their economies might have ground to a halt, because they have not been earning sufficient foreign exchange to pay for oil to sustain their manufacturing, agricultural and tourism industries.

Hugo Chavez's most recent efforts at regional integration resulted in the formation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) from which the United States and Canada have been conspicuously excluded.

Trinidad and Tobago’s acting Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Roodial Moonilal described Chavez as “ a really great figure in regional and even world politics.”

Guyana’s President Donald Ramotar said Chavez’ death is a “big loss” for Venezuela and CARICOM.

Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller described Chavez as, “a sincere, jovial, and a very vociferous and committed leader in the defense 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”.

Former Grenada prime minister Tillman Thomas seemed to sum it up best, he said: 

“It is really a loss to the region. President Chavez was very committed to uniting Latin America and the Caribbean; he had a passion for working together with the region and I think it is a loss to the region and I hope that the relationship would continue.”