Backlash was immediate. Besides multiple angry tweets in response, Republican National Committee spokesperson Alexandra Franceschi released a statement condemning Serrano's support of the 'authoritarian ruler':
“It’s simply insulting that a Democrat Congressman would praise the authoritarian ruler Hugo Chavez. Chavez systematically cracked down on the basic freedom and liberties of Venezuelans, nationalized private industries, and befriended anti-American dictators like Castro, Ahmadinejad, and Assad. Americans should stand together with the freedom loving people of Venezuela as they hope for a peaceful transition to a democracy, instead of praising the former dictator.”
Serrano, however, doubled down on the tweet, releasing a statement of his own that further expounded on his praise for Chavez.
The two politicians met in 2005, he says, and came up with a deal that transported cheap heating oil from Venezuela to Serrano's poorer constituents in the Bronx. Serrano's statement:
I met President Chavez in 2005 when he came to my district at my invitation. 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. 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.
“When he visited, President Chavez offered a new type of program to the people of the Bronx. He had harnessed the power of his nation’s oil resources and was using their profits—through Citgo—to enact social spending programs. Now he offered people in the Bronx that were struggling economically the same deal. He would provide home heating oil at a huge discount, provided the savings were reinvested in programs that benefited the underserved and underprivileged. I am proud to report that we have benefited from that program ever since, with millions invested in our community through this program and through a grant program he set up.
“Though President Chavez was accused of many things, it is important to remember that he was democratically-elected many times in elections that were declared free and fair by international monitors. Even today, people in North America seem unable to accept that Venezuelans had taken our admonitions to have democracy to heart and elected the leader of their choice. President Chavez carried out the programs that his constituents wanted enacted, and won reelection. This too was revolutionary in the history of Latin America.
“President Chavez was a controversial leader. But at his core he was a man who came from very little and used his unique talents and gifts to try to lift up the people and the communities that reflected his impoverished roots. He believed that the government of the country should be used to empower the masses, not the few. He understood democracy and basic human desires for a dignified life. His legacy in his nation, and in the hemisphere, will be assured, as the people he inspired continue to strive for a better life for the poor and downtrodden.”
Serrano isn't the first New York politician to heap praise upon a controversial foreign figure. City Council Member Charles Barron, also a Democrat, eulogized Muammar Gaddafi at an event in Brooklyn in 2011, calling the slain Libyan leader a "freedom fighter."
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Hugo Chavez was 51 years old at the time of his death. He was 58.
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President Barack Obama
The White House released the following statement: "At this challenging time of President Hugo Chavez’s passing, the United States reaffirms its support for the Venezuelan people and its interest in developing a constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government. 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."
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.)
Diaz-Balart issued a <a href="http://mariodiazbalart.house.gov/press-releases/a-brighter-future-for-venezuela-and-its-people/">statement</a>: “For more than a decade, the Venezuelan people have suffered under the authoritarian rule of Hugo Chavez. He cracked down on freedom of the press and arrested judges and opposition leaders who didn’t agree with him. Additionally, he used petro dollars stolen from the Venezuelan people to extend his influence and fund the sinister agendas of cruel dictators like Castro, Ahmadinejad, and Assad. “Now, there is hope for the restoration of freedom in Venezuela with truly free and fair elections, renewal of a civil society, and the protection of an independent press. I share the hopes of South Florida's patriotic Venezuelan community that today will mark a new era and the start of a brighter future for their beloved country.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.)
Ros-Lehtinen released a <a href="http://ros-lehtinen.house.gov/press-release/death-hugo-chavez-marks-opportunity-democracy-venezuela-ros-lehtinen-says">statement</a>, saying: "The Venezuela people now have an opportunity to emerge from this oppressive regime and regain their democracy and human rights. However, this can only be done through a true democratic process with free, fair, and transparent elections. I am hopeful that democracy will rise from the ashes of the Chavez regime and again become a part of a new Venezuela. Now it is up to the Venezuelan people to redefine and rebuild their nation as a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous state free of the clutches of Chavez and his disastrous social and economic policies.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)
Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.)
Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.)
Rep. Mike Rogers (D-Mich.)
“Hugo Chavez was a destabilizing force in Latin America, and an obstacle to progress in the region. I hope his death provides an opportunity for a new chapter in US-Venezuelan relations.”
Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)
Cotton released a to-the-point <a href="http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/republican-lawmaker-reacts-death-hugo-chavez-sic-semper-231834736--politics.html">statement</a>, saying: "Sic semper tyrannis," meaning "thus ever to tyrants." "After the welcome news of Hugo Chavez’s death, I hope that the oppressed people of Venezuela will be able to live in freedom, not under miserable tyranny. I look forward to working in the House to promote a free, democratic, and pro-American government in Venezuela," he said.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.)
Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.)
Royce issued a statement saying: "Hugo Chavez was a tyrant who forced the people of Venezuela to live in fear. His death dents the alliance of anti-U.S. leftist leaders in South America. Good riddance to this dictator. Venezuela once had a strong democratic tradition and was close to the United States. Chavez’s death sets the stage for fresh elections. While not guaranteed, closer U.S. relations with his key country in our Hemisphere are now possible.”
Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.)