Latin America mourns Chavez

by Richard Bagley

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a fitting final journey through the capital Caracas today as his coffin was carried through massive crowds teeming the streets.

Shell-shocked leaders from neighbouring states including Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia swept into the country hours after an emotional Vice-President Nicolas Maduro announced on state TV that the popular ally had finally succumbed to the cancer that has dogged him for the past two years.

Countries across Latin America declared periods of official mourning following his death on Tuesday aged 58.

Flanked by senior members of the Bolivarian government and Venezuelan military, Mr Madura revealed that Mr Chavez had died at 4.25pm local time at a military hospital in the capital.

He had returned home two weeks earlier to spend his final days on native soil following lengthy treatment in Cuba.

Venezuela has declared seven days’ mourning, closing schools and universities.

And neighbouring countries who have been part of an unprecedented period of independent foreign policy that began with Mr Chavez’s election in 1998 did likewise.

Cuba announced three days’ national mourning, with Bolivia, Chile and Argentina among those states that did the same.

Mr Chavez’s death prompted nationwide grief among the poor majority who have overwhelmingly backed his socialist administration throughout a US-supported coup attempt, a bosses’ strike, a recall referendum prompted by wealthy opponents and four democratic elections.

But rich right-wing exiles in the United States could not hide their delight, partying in the streets of Miami at the news.

US President Barack Obama, whose country has long tried to head off the increasingly independent direction of its traditional back yard in Latin America, was mealy-mouthed in his official reaction to Mr Chavez’s death.

Refusing to refer to the Venezuelan by name, Mr Obama said only that the country had entered a “new chapter” following his death.

In the wake of Mr Madura’s announcement the vice-president revealed that two US diplomats had been expelled for entering into talks with local military figures.

However today the army took part in a nationwide tribute which saw 21-gun salutes being fired across the country.

And politicians from across the continent, and ordinary Venezuelans, were united in their praise for the legacy left by Mr Chavez of socialist policies which have sharply reduced inequality and rolled out health, education and welfare programmes.

Arriving in Venezuela, tearful Bolivian President Evo Morales declared: “We have lost a leader, but for me Chavez remains the commander of the forces for liberty across the world, anti-imperialist and socialist peoples.”

Mr Chavez death will spark an election in coming weeks that is expected to be bitterly contested by a US-backed opposition which has lost much of its power and influence since 1998.

In Britain tributes also poured in.

Unite the union said it stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the Venezuelan people.

“Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution have been a massive inspiration for all those engaged in the fight for social justice and who believe that another world is possible,” said Unite general secretary Len McCluskey.

“He embodied and represented a people who refused to accept that grinding poverty and social exclusion could be tolerated while massive wealth was stockpiled in the hands of a few.

“Under his leadership Venezuela has been transformed beyond recognition for the better.” (This article was originally published in Morning star daily)

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