The death of Venezuela's controversial president, Hugo Chavez, has left his South American nation bitterly divided. Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who will fill in until Venezuelans elect a new leader, called on his countrymen to mourn as one, saying, "Let there be no weakness, no violence. Let there be no hate. In our hearts there should only be one sentiment: Love." Still, many Venezuelans are bracing for an uncertain future, as some people grieve while others look forward to rolling back Chavez's staunchly anti-U.S. socialist revolution. The reaction has been divided in the U.S., too.
Movie star Sean Penn summed up the sentiments of many on the Left this way: "Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had." Penn met Chavez in 2007 and attended a vigil for him in Bolivia in December. "And poor people around the world lost a champion. I lost a friend I was blessed to have." Filmmaker Michael Moore praised Chavez for spending much of his country's oil wealth on the poor, and director Oliver Stone, who celebrated Chavez and other left-wing South American leaders in his 2009 documentary South of the Border, said Chavez was "hated by the entrenched classes" but would be remembered as "a great hero to the majority of his people."
Hollywood celebrities weren't the only Americans in mourning. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), who met Chavez when the Venezuelan leader visited his district in 2005, mourned the passing of a man he called "a truly revolutionary leader in the history of Latin America. He understood that after 400 years on the outside of the established power structure looking in, it was time that the poor had a chance at seeing their problems and issues addressed." Former President Jimmy Carter echoed those sentiments, saying that Chavez had cut poverty rates in half during his 14 years in power, and that he "will be remembered for his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments."
Predictably, that kind of talk isn't going over well with conservatives.
Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) bluntly said, "Sic semper tyrannis," meaning "thus always to tyrants." Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said she hoped that Chavez's death would give Venezuelans the "opportunity to emerge from this oppressive regime and regain their democracy and human rights." Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American, is also a vocal enemy of Chavez's longtime friend in Havana, ailing former Cuban President Fidel Castro. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, summed up the reaction of the Right, saying, "Good riddance," and expressing hope that now Venezuela and the U.S. can start repairing their frayed relations. "Venezuela once had a strong democratic tradition and was close to the United States," he tells Politico. "Chavez's death sets the stage for fresh elections. While not guaranteed, closer U.S. relations with his key country in our hemisphere are now possible."
Many of the estimated 190,000 Venezuelan expatriates now living in the U.S. — about half of whom are in Florida — shared that view. "We are free, finally!" shouted Venezuela-born Frank Gobel, who celebrated in South Florida. "We have a better future now," added Gobel's friend, Betzy Colon. Another man, Angel Monterusco, said that Venezuelans could now try to come together and build up their country, something that was impossible under Chavez, whom he called a dictator. "Death is always lamentable," Monterusco, a computer software consultant, tells The New York Times, "but it's a new era."
That hope for a fresh start might be the one thing both sides — those mourning and those cheering — can agree on. President Obama extended a hand to Venezuela and called for "developing a constructive relationship" between the two nations. "As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history," Obama said, "the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights." Will this rapprochement really happen? It might be a long shot. Maduro is insisting that someday there will be "scientific proof" that Chavez was infected by outsiders — and State Department officials say that the implication is that the government Chavez left behind is making the "absurd" accusation that the U.S. somehow gave him cancer.