At the end of last week, Queens Congressman Gregory Meeks announced he would officially represent the United States at former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s funeral, a country he’s dealt with in the past as a senior member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Politicker caught up with Mr. Meeks to ask how the Latin America trip went before a Monday morning press conference announcing new flood insurance legislation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
“I thought that the trip was very good,” Mr. Meeks replied. “I was welcomed there by both members of the opposition as well as people close to President Chávez. As you know, I got to know President Chávez quite well. I think that though controversial–there were many things that I disagreed with–that he did have his heart on the poor. When you look at the thousands upon thousands of people that were in the streets mourning his death, Venezuela is clearly a country that is in mourning.”
Mr. Meeks further said he was impressed by the wide range of international leaders in attendance, leaving him optimistic about the region’s future.
“It was an opportunity to hope that we have a better relationship with Venezuela in the future,” he explained. “There were world leaders from many of our allies–Colombia, all of the Caribbean, and everyone who was there–so it was an opportunity to talk to them also about where we go from here and how we can improve relationships. …The hemisphere is important to us. So it was moving in seeing the hemisphere trying to come together and work in a collective basis. … It showed a significant difference in what’s taken place in Latin America today as [opposed] to what has taken place in Latin America 20, 25 years ago. … Before Chávez was president poor people had no hope. Chavez gave them hope and that someone was on their side.”
However, when we asked whether he thought Venezuela would be better off moving forward without Mr. Chávez at the helm he declined to weigh in one way or the other. Instead, Mr. Meeks chose to extol the democratic process that elected Mr. Chávez rather than join the his critics who have accused the leader of dictatorship-like tactics in order to remain in power.
“I believe in democracy and the people of Venezuela elect its leaders just like we elect ours,” he said. “So that’s for the people of Venezuela to decide and move together. Chávez was democratically elected three times. So I would never disparage a people’s choice for their president just like I don’t want anyone to disparage the American people’s choice for president.”
Update (5:27 p.m.): Added language to clarify the Venezuelan people’s “hope” came with Mr. Chávez initial election, not his passing, in Mr. Meeks view.