When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was laid to rest yesterday in Caracas, ironically it was American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson who eulogized the controversial leader whose dislike of the U.S. sometimes seemed obsessive.
“Hugo fed the hungry,” Jackson said. “He lifted the poor. He raised their hopes. He helped them realize their dreams. And, so, today we do mourn, because we’ve lost a lot. But we have a lot left – a stable government, an orderly transition.”
It was a fitting testament to the complexities of Chavez that his funeral would feature a eulogy by Jackson with American actor Sean Penn in the front row, not far from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, another sworn American enemy, and Cuban President Raul Castro, no fan of the U.S. either.
“We have lost a great leader, a great man,” Ahmadinejad said after the ceremony. “Hugo came from the people and he served the people.”
Jackson prayed that Chavez’ s soul would find peace.
“Death is certain. Life is uncertain. Thus, a life of service matters,” Jackson told the mourners. “We pray to God today that the soul of Hugo Chavez will find peace and accept service in the kingdom.”
Jackson also prayed for wisdom and support for Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, “as he keeps hopes and dreams alive, as he picks up the baton and makes a great nation greater.”
“We pray God today that you will heal the breach between the U.S. and Venezuela,” Jackson continued. “We are neighbors. We share the same hemisphere. We play ball together. We trade resources together. We fight drugs together. We share dreams together. We’re bound by culture and environment.”
Maduro, his powerful voice sometimes cracking, did most of the speaking at the funeral service.
“Here you are commander with your men, standing, all your men and women, loyal as we swore before you, loyal until beyond death,” he shouted. “We have smashed the curse of betrayal of the country and we will smash the curse of defeat and regression.”
The United States was formally represented at the funeral by New York Congressman Gregory Meeks and former Massachusetts Congressman William Delahunt.
“My deepest sympathies go out to the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela,” Meeks said in a statement. “Venezuela is an important nation to the Western Hemisphere. I remain committed to building the relationship between our nations. As always, I stand in continued support of the Venezuelan people, especially at this time of mourning.”
Just hours after the funeral, Maduro, 50, was sworn in as acting president at the National Assembly in Caracas.
“I swear by the most absolute loyalty to comrade Hugo Chavez that we will fulfill and see that it’s fulfilled the constitution … with the iron fist of a people ready to be free,” Maduro said at the swearing-in.
But Venezuela’s opposition coalition had announced through spokesman Angel Medina that it would boycott Maduro’s inauguration, calling it “fraudulent.”
Henrique Capriles, who lost to Chavez in the October presidential election, said the constitution requires the vice president to step down from his post to run for president.
“Nicolas, nobody elected you president,” Capriles said. “The people didn’t vote for you, kid.”
He accused Maduro of using the funeral to campaign for the presidency.
The country’s Supreme Court has ruled that Maduro could become acting president while polls were called within 30 days.
Maduro named Jorge Arreaza, Chavez’s son-in-law and Venezuela’s science and technology minister, as his vice president.
Both Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, the National Assembly president, said they would follow Chavez’s example and push his socialist-inspired agenda. Maduro also followed in his predecessor’s footsteps by not avoiding any opportunity to attack the United States.
Maduro repeated the bizarre accusation he made shortly before Chavez’s death – that the U.S. had caused the fatal cancer. He referred to “this illness, very strange for the speed of its growth and for other scientific reasons that will be known in their moment.”
“We tell them: Sooner than later, the imperialist elites who govern the United States will have to learn to live with absolute respect with the insurrectional people of the … Latin and Caribbean America,” Maduro said.
In an appearance on CNN, Jackson compared the notorious and controversial socialist leader to former U.S. presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. His point, he said, is that “democracies evolve.”
“Well you know, democracies mature,” Jackson told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, adding that “our first 15 presidents owned people, they owned slaves.”
“I just want to be precise … Are you really comparing Hugo Chavez to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or James Madison? That’s what I was hearing. But I want you to explain,” Blitzer said.
“Well, democracies evolve,” Jackson repeated. “My point is that our first 15 presidents owned slaves and called it democracy for [about 200] years. We’ve come a mighty long way.”