Earlier today, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died after an extended bout with cancer. Needless to say, Mr. Chávez, a prominent opponent of United States foreign policy whose critics accused him of dictator-style thuggery at home, will not be fondly remembered in many corners of American politics.
But in the Bronx, at least, Mr. Chávez has a booster in the form of veteran Congressman José Serrano, who responded to the news by praising the Venezuelan leader’s anti-poverty efforts.
“Hugo Chavez was a leader that understood the needs of the poor,” Mr. Serrano tweeted. He was committed to empowering the powerless. R.I.P. Mr. President.”
Not all New York City politicians were as kind as Mr. Serrano, however. The inimitable Councilman Peter Vallone notably took to Twitter and blasted both Mr. Chávez and Joseph Kennedy II’s relationship with his government.
“Chavez is dead,” wrote Mr. Vallone. “joe kennedy on way to Syria to suck up to another brutal dictator to keep him in TV commercials.”
Update (6:31 p.m.): Mr. Serrano released a full statement detailing his relationship with Mr. Chávez and why he supported the controversial leader:
“I met President Chavez in 2005 when he came to my district at my invitation,” said Congressman Serrano. “His focus on the issues faced by the poor and disenfranchised in his country made him 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. His core belief was in the dignity and common humanity of all people in Venezuela and in the world.
“When he visited, President Chavez offered a new type of program to the people of the Bronx. He had harnessed the power of his nation’s oil resources and was using their profits—through Citgo—to enact social spending programs. Now he offered people in the Bronx that were struggling economically the same deal. He would provide home heating oil at a huge discount, provided the savings were reinvested in programs that benefited the underserved and underprivileged. I am proud to report that we have benefited from that program ever since, with millions invested in our community through this program and through a grant program he set up.
“Though President Chavez was accused of many things, it is important to remember that he was democratically-elected many times in elections that were declared free and fair by international monitors. Even today, people in North America seem unable to accept that Venezuelans had taken our admonitions to have democracy to heart and elected the leader of their choice. President Chavez carried out the programs that his constituents wanted enacted, and won reelection. This too was revolutionary in the history of Latin America, where coup d’etat have been historically a way of power changing hands—especially during the times of controversial leaders.
“President Chavez was a controversial leader. But at his core he was a man who came from very little and used his unique talents and gifts to try to lift up the people and the communities that reflected his impoverished roots. He believed that the government of the country should be used to empower the masses, not the few. He understood democracy and basic human desires for a dignified life. His legacy in his nation, and in the hemisphere, will be assured as the people he inspired continue to strive for a better life for the poor and downtrodden.”