By Jordan Katz
Just inside the entrance to New York’s Church of St. Paul the Apostle, a line to sign a book of condolences for the late Hugo Chávez snaked around tables at the ecumenical service held just over a week after the former Venezuelan president’s death. Piled on the tables were t-shirts imprinted with the slogan, “Yo Soy Chávez.” Beneath the slogan in smaller print: “1954-Forever.”
Mourners from Venezuela and throughout the Americas filled the church on the night of March 13 to pay their respects and look toward the future. According to Venezuela’s recently appointed Minister of the People’s Power for Foreign Affairs, Elías Jaua, who spoke at the event, Venezuela’s future holds an expansion of the Chavista socialist program, and most importantly, a “radicaliz[ing] of participatory democracy.” Jaua expressed confidence that Chavez’s predecessor and Venezuela’s interim president, Nicolas Maduro, will win the election scheduled for April 14th.
Jaua’s words were met with cheers from an emotional and inspired audience, which included a host of progressive organizations. The Workers World Party, the Urban Justice Center, and leaders of several unions attended the memorial.
Among the slew of political activists who came out to show their support were some familiar faces. Actor Danny Glover sent a letter to be read in his absence and former Congressman Joseph Kennedy gave a speech, condemning those who spoke ill of Chávez and praising his redistribution of the country’s wealth. Citing Chávez’s reorganization of Venezuela’s previously ailing state oil program, PDVSA, he asked, “What possible benefit could that oil monster have been to the poor of Venezuela?”
The speakers glorified rather than analyzed Chávez, but individual audience members’ reactions were more critical. A Venezuelan national who attended the service and wishes to be named only as Max, said things in Venezuela are progressing little by little. “You have to give it time,” he said. “Chávez did quite a lot. He had his problems, but no one is perfect in this life. He achieved more than anyone else did, especially in education, which is what the people need…We’re not going to become like Cuba. To become like Cuba, where people can’t even leave their country, we’d have to move backward.”
Carmen Martinez, an occupational therapist originally from Venezuela, said her support for Chávez largely stems from what he did for the handicap community. “The president actually was the one who promoted the love for the handicap people there,” she said. “In the past, they didn’t have any wheelchairs. They really didn’t have any equipment there… and [Chávez] created a mission where he was able to provide not only the care, but also all the equipment that they lacked before.” She said she was deeply saddened and devastated by his death, but believes Nicolas Maduro is the right person to carry out the programs that Chávez put in place.
When asked about Maduro’s opposition, Henrique Capriles, Martinez said she doesn’t think that his campaign has been honest. “Because of the campaign, they were saying ‘Oh, well we promise every handicapped child a wheelchair.’ Well we had that… They forgot that we already have the mission,” she said. “So somebody who can lie on the TV just to try to make people happy, I don’t think I can trust.”
Despite controversy surrounding the constitutionality of Maduro’s taking over the presidency in the interim, he is the favored candidate. And considering Maduro’s recent declarations that the United States was behind Chávez’s illness, it doesn’t look like U.S.-Venezuelan relations will be softening in the near future. Whoever wins the election inherits some of the highest inflation rates in the world and an extremely high crime rate–Venezuela’s homicide rate is second only to Honduras. The best way to tackle those challenges is by constructing programs that have lasting positive impact, whether the president is Chavista or not.
Jordan Katz is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Bernardo Londoy.]