HAVANA, Cuba – Latin America mourned the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on Tuesday as the United States expressed hope his passing would lead to improved relations with the oil-rich state.
Chávez, 58, died after a long battle with cancer, plunging Venezuela into an uncertain future after 14 years of rule by the charismatic former paratrooper, a standard-bearer of Latin America’s “anti-imperialist” left.
Ideological allies across the region lined up to salute Chávez, with Cuba leading the plaudits to a man hailed as a “true son” to the communist nation’s retired 86-year-old revolutionary icon Fidel Castro.
Cuban officials declared three days of national mourning in honor of the country’s closest regional ally and main economic benefactor.
In a statement broadcast on state television, the Cuban government said Chávez had “stood by Fidel [Castro] like a true son” during his presidency.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff hailed Chávez as a “great Latin American.”
“We recognize a great leader, an irreparable loss and above all a friend of Brazil, a friend of the Brazilian people,” Rousseff said.
Bolivia’s socialist President Evo Morales – whose political priorities and style of leadership have drawn deeply from Chávez – said he was “crushed” by his friend’s death and would soon travel to Venezuela.
“We are in pain,” Morales added.
Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa, another close ally, said Chávez’s death was an “irreparable loss” for Latin America, saying Venezuelans would proudly carry on his legacy.
In Argentina, Vice President Amado Boudou said on Twitter that “all of Latin America” was in mourning.
“One of the best has left us: you will always be with us, Comandante,” Boudou said. Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner is to travel to Venezuela for Chávez’s memorial service.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos echoed Correa’s sentiments, saying Chávez’s death was “a great loss for Venezuela and the region, for Colombia and for me personally.”
Uruguay’s President Jose Mujica, a leftist and close friend of Chávez, issued a heartfelt tribute.
“You are always saddened by a death,” said the 77-year-old, who confirmed he will travel to Venezuela to pay his respects.
“But when you are talking about someone who has fought on the front line, and about someone who I remember I once called ‘the most generous leader I have met’, well the pain takes on a whole new dimension.”
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, a conservative billionaire, called Chávez a leader who was “deeply committed to Latin America’s integration.”
It was a view shared by Honduras President Porfirio Lobo, who lamented the loss of a “leader who fought for the integration of Latin America.”
El Salvador President Mauricio Funes also offered condolences, expressing “deep regret at the loss of this great leader.”
While Latin America offered many of the most anguished tributes, there was a more measured response from the United States, whom Chávez had delighted in antagonizing during his years in office.
“At this challenging time of President Hugo Chávez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government,” President Barack Obama said.
“As Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights,” Obama said in a short written statement.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon paid tribute Chávez’s work on behalf of his country’s poor and his support of Colombia’s peace process.
“President Chávez spoke to the challenges and aspirations of the most vulnerable Venezuelans,” Ban said.
French President Francois Hollande meanwhile praised Chávez’s determination “to fight for justice,” saying he had “profoundly marked his country’s history.”
In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was “saddened” by the death, saying Chávez had left a “lasting impression” on his people.
In Nicaragua, the Nicaragua Dispatch reports that President Daniel Ortega paid a short farewell to his close ally and friend: “He raised the sword of [South American liberator Simón] Bolívar in Venezuela, in Latin America, the Caribbean and the world to demand justice and peace, liberty and unity.”