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Leaders of Latin America’s new left gather to say farewell to Hugo Chavez

By and Emilia Diaz,

In CARACAS, Venezuela — With her friend President Hugo Chavez dead, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner came to Venezuela dressed in black and ready to mourn.

Jose “Pepe” Mujica, a former rebel turned president of Uruguay, flew at once from the other side of the continent. Evo Morales, the Aymara Indian president of Bolivia, choked up as he spoke of “being very hurt” by Chavez’s passing as he stood just feet from where El Comandante lay in state.

From Central America to Tierra del Fuego, the leaders of Latin America’s new left — some of them populist nationalists who revel in defying the United States — are here or on their way to grieve a man who saw himself as leader of “the peoples of our America.”

For leaders such as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, himself a fiery president, it is clear that the death of the 58-year-old leaves a void that will be difficult to fill for the radical leaders who rose to power in the region after Chavez was swept into office in 1999.

Almost all of them pledge to carry forward the torch as this oil-rich country of 29 million prepares a funeral on Friday that will include pomp and circumstance and a heavy dose of mythmaking. There will be another momentous event later in the day, when Nicolas Maduro, the vice president, takes the oath of office at the Caracas military academy where Chavez has lain in state and officially becomes Venezuela’s leader.

“We have the commitment, today more than ever, to complete your dreams,” Correa said before the cameras in his homeland, fighting back tears. “Wherever you are, we will complete those dreams. Long live Hugo Chavez Frias! Long live Latin America!”

Correa, who became a close friend to Chavez, and Morales have borrowed heavily from the tenets of what Chavez called 21st-century socialism — intervening in the economy, putting state institutions under the executive’s control and corralling opponents and the press.

But although the Ecuadoran leader and, at times, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega wade into the international arena, neither has the bombast and verve — or the gift for a folksy line — that Chavez had. Nor do they have the deep pockets of a leader who sat on the world’s biggest oil reserves.

Eric Farnsworth, who runs the Washington office of the Council of the Americas policy group, said he believes that what also set Chavez apart was the symbolism he evoked, of a populist hero leading the masses out of darkness.

“He spoke for a certain dimension of the political spectrum in Latin America, and in that sense he’s going to be hard to replace,” Farnsworth said. “No one has Hugo Chavez’s combination of charisma, vision and money. He had a vision he was working for. He had charisma to inspire whole populations, and he had the money to finance it.”

The more than 30 heads of state who will be here for the funeral will see a country that is in the midst of venerating its dead leader like few others, at least in modern times.

Indeed, on Thursday afternoon, the vice president announced on national television that Chavez’s body would not be buried on Friday — but rather would be on view at a museum for at least seven more days. Then Maduro told Venezuelans about another initiative.

“I want to tell the people and the world that a decision has been made to prepare the body of the commander-president and embalm him so he can be eternally open [for public viewing] so the people can have him there in its Museum of the Revolution,” Maduro said. “Just like Ho Chi Minh, like Lenin, how Mao Zedong is. The body of our commander in chief will be embalmed in the Museum of the Revolution in a special manner.”

For several leaders who will be here for the funeral, Chavez was a special leader, one who helped countries struggling with diplomatic and political isolation.

“A great friend has died, a loyal friend, our brother,” said Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, a country the United States has called Europe’s last dictatorship.

Another friend planning to attend is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said Chavez was a “martyr for having served his people and protected human and revolutionary values.”

Inspiration for the left

In Latin America, the sentiment that Chavez is a true torch in the revolutionary fight against imperialism and the elites is widespread among leftist movements, which are strong in several countries, and also among some governments.

Carlos Romero, a leading analyst here who has closely followed Chavez’s rule and also leftist politics in the region, said the emergence of Chavez came at the right time for leftists hungry for a hero.

“He revived the leftist movement in Latin America,” Romero said. “That’s most important. He took the ideological debate to the table.”

Chavez also managed to remain at center stage, not just for his allies but even his detractors. Colombia’s former president, Alvaro Uribe, who is from the far right and accused Chavez of aiding Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas, fumed publicly about Chavez during and after his presidency.

And Chile’s Sebastian Piñera, a conservative self-made billionaire whose government has a cordial relationship with Venezuela, said that while they had their differences, Chavez “was a man who was profoundly committed with the integration of Latin America.”

A lasting legacy?

As mourners on Thursday passed by Chavez’s coffin, saying a quick prayer or saluting, Venezuela’s foreign minister, Elias Jaua, said on state television that Chavez had left a potent international legacy. “We received from him a Venezuela respected around the world, a world where nearly every president is a friend of Venezuela,” he said.

Still, the words of a great orator, one who could inspire masses, did not always match what actually transpired across Latin America.

Chavez spoke of a continental integration, the dream of his idol, the 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar. But Venezuela’s closest allies remained small, poor countries, such as Nicaragua or Communist Cuba, a country Chavez revered and whose octogenarian leadership gave him inspiration. He also built close ties abroad with the likes of Syria and Moammar Gaddafi’s Libya.

Big, democratic Brazil and smaller fast-developing countries such as Uruguay, Chile and Peru were diplomatically close but followed an economic and political path far removed from Venezuela’s. Their governments are market-friendly and attuned to social needs, combining those philosophies to register fast economic growth and lift millions out of poverty. They also place an emphasis on good ties with the Obama administration.

Venezuela did lower poverty. But job creation came through inefficient, bloated and corrupt state agencies. The country is more reliant than ever on oil sales, imports more food than before and is buffeted by power failures and violent crime. Chavez also left it deeply polarized, with millions of people feeling left out by a system he claimed was all-inclusive.

Leaders in other countries were plainly aware of Venezuela’s deep problems, analysts say.

“You have to argue really whether Chavez succeeded in planting what he wanted for Latin America,” said Romero, the political analyst, who is skeptical of Chavez’s lasting influence. “I think he did not succeed because his leadership was too attached to his ideology.”

Nick Miroff contributed to this report.

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