U.S. reaction to Chavezs death: from mourning to celebration

CNN News Wire | 3/5/2013, 2:30 p.m.

Minutes after the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was announced, scores of his fellow citizens made their way to El Arepazo, a Venezuelan restaurant outside Miami.

The colors of the Venezuelan flag--red, blue and yellow--predominated among the crowd of about 200 people, many of whom cheered and waved tiny flags as they bellied up to a buffet stocked with "pabellon criollo," the traditional Venezuelan dish of rice, beans, shredded beef and stewed black beans.

"We shouldn't be partying," said Ernesto Ackerman, a Chavez opponent and president of the Independent Venezuelan-American Citizens, a non-profit organization that helps Latinos become U.S. citizens.

"We're only half of the country; the other half still supports Chavez. We should be asking (for) democracy, democracy, democracy, constitution. This is a most critical moment."

As he spoke, more people--many of them wearing Venezuelan baseball caps--entered the restaurant, which advertises itself as "your little piece of Venezuela in Doral," Florida. As Spanish-language television blared out the news, they sat down to plates piled with shredded gouda cheese, plantains and stuffed cornbread patties.

Some took pictures to memorialize the moment. One elderly man clutched six tiny flags in his fist.

In Washington, politicians reacted almost as quickly as the South Florida crowd. "Hugo Chavez ruled Venezuela with an iron hand and his passing has left a political void that we hope will be filled peacefully and through a constitutional and democratic process, grounded in the Venezuelan constitution and adhering to the Inter-American Democratic Charter," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Menendez called for "free and fair elections" so that "Venezuela can begin to restore its once robust democracy and ensure respect for the human, political and civil rights of its people."

The chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Rep. Ed Royce, R-California, was harsher, calling Chavez "a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear" and adding, "Good riddance to this dictator."

But the news was not red meat to all U.S. politicians.

Former President Jimmy Carter noted that he had gotten to know Chavez while observing elections in Venezuela. "We came to know a man who expressed a vision to bring profound changes to his country to benefit especially those people who had felt neglected and marginalized," he said in a statement.

"Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez's commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen."

He said that poverty rates were cut in half during Chavez's time in office but also noted the divisions that were created in the drive toward change.

"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," said Rep. Jose E. Serrano, D-New York. "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."