I saw Hugo Chavez at the height of his popularity. To the various communist parties of Jawaharlal Nehru University, he was a rock star. It was warm and sunny and thousands of students packed into the stadium seats by the athletic field to hear the Venezuelan President and his translator boast and gesticulate. I wasn’t an admirer or a detractor – I went mainly to see the spectacle. Considering my neutrality, I must admit that it was difficult to not get swept up in the moment. Still, I sat silently just in case there were CIA spies taking notes for future conversations with me (8 years later and still no such chat).
A casual look through my Facebook news feed and you might think that a saint just died. To fully appreciate Chavez’s reception on campus, one would have to compare his visit to that of Manmohan Singh, who was booed off of stage when he spoke to the same students a few months later. I remember the Prime Minister of India trying to calm the students down with his soft voice, saying something along the lines of “I may disagree with you, but I wholeheartedly agree with your right to disagree”. My Uzbek friends were astonished – the leader of the country was not even allowed to make a speech at the university whereas, Chavez, just a few months ago, was treated like a hero.
Needless to say, sentiments are not quite the same in the US. While his opponents are not overtly celebrating his demise, they are certainly not mourning Chavez. Contrary to common belief, the US Government did offer official condolences, but only in a sort of backhanded manner. This from a State Department official:
“We express our sympathies to his family and to the Venezuelan people…Frankly, the way I was raised, when somebody dies you always express condolences… There’s a family involved here, we sympathize with that.”
In other words, we’re doing this because we have to, not because we want to. But what else could be expected when the man who passed referred to your former President as a donkey and the devil, your current President as a fraud and a clown and your former Secretary of State as a little girl. How else can a Government respond when the man in question accused it of masterminding a secret plan to spread cancer throughout Latin America.
His supporters did not need to forgive his idiosyncrasies because that was what set him apart. To many in India and throughout the world, he represented a colorful and unapologetic stand against global capitalism and Western imperialism. To the United States, he was a charlatan and a frustrating reminder that support for democracy abroad must be reconciled with inconvenient electoral results. Given the US Government’s historical relationship with leftist Latin American leaders, perhaps we should just be glad that it didn’t invade Venezuela to overthrow him.