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World leaders pay tribute to Hugo Chavez as wave of grief washes over Latin America

One of the world's most flamboyant leaders lost his two-year battle with cancer on Tuesday, ending 14 years of a tumultuous and often bitterly divisive socialist reign. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

A wave of public grief washed over Latin America following the death of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, reflecting the powerful emotions the charismatic leftist leader evoked in the region and around the world. 

The Cuban government, Venezuela's closest ally, declared official mourning for Wednesday and Thursday, and nationwide mourning for Friday.

"I tell you, this is sad and painful news not just for me, because ... Cuba and the entire world has lost a great man," said Armando Fuentes, a store clerk in Havana, after Venezuela’s Vice President Nicolas Maduro broke the news of Chavez’s death Tuesday.

Dayana Calzado, a 27-year-old Cuban lawyer, said the world had lost a great leader. "A very long time will pass before there is another leader like him," she said.

Chavez's passing was acutely felt in Latin America where his anti-colonialist and anti-American policies and rhetoric provoked both loyalty and anger.

Reports featuring crying mourners from around the continent dominated Venezuelan television in the hours after his death was announced.

Claudio Santana / AFP - Getty Images

Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in the United States and elsewhere mourn his death.

Brazil's President, Dilma Rousseff, said she was mourning the loss of a great "friend" of her country, the BBC reported.

"This death should fill all Latin and Central Americans with sadness," she added, according to the BBC. "Hugo Chavez was without doubt a leader committed to his country and to the development of the people of Latin America."

Chavez has often criticized the United States on its history of intervention in the Americas and Washington's stance on countries such as Iran.

Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner suspended activities after receiving the news and traveled to Venezuela. She and her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, were close friends of Chavez.

Chile and Ecuador released official notes of condolence, while in Peru a minute of silence was held in Chavez’s honor. Meanwhile, Bolivia's President Evo Morales announced he would travel immediately to Caracas to pay his respects. Uruguayan President José Mujica also set off for Caracas.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted: "I profoundly lament the death of the president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez Frías. Our sincere condolences."

Chavez's friends further afield also reacted to news of his death immediately.

"It's a tragedy. He was a great politician," Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said of the death.

'Understood the needs of the poor'
In the United States, Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., who represents a largely Hispanic district, tweeted his condolences: "Hugo Chavez was a leader that understood the needs of the poor. He was committed to empowering the powerless. R.I.P. Mr. President."

Serrano's statement provoked an angry reaction form pro-troops charity Move America Forward.

"Chavez openly hated the United States and opposed any effort to spread freedom, democracy and free markets to Latin America," it said in a statement.

Nevertheless, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter also paid tribute to Chavez, and said in a statement that he "will be remembered for his bold assertion of autonomy and independence for Latin American governments." 

Joseph P. Kennedy II, chairman of non-profit Citizens Energy, which was criticized for receiving heating oil donations from the Venezuelan state-owned oil company, released a statement thanking Chavez for his generosity.


The life of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez from his rise as a lieutenant colonel after his failed coup attempt in 1992.

"There are close to two million people in the United States who received free heating assistance, thanks to President Chavez's leadership," Kennedy's statement read. "Our prayers go out to President Chavez's family, the people of Venezuela, and all who were warmed by his generosity."

The friction between the U.S. and the Chavez regime lasted until the end of his life.

Only minutes before the Venezuelan leader's death was announced, the State Department issued a statement rejecting Maduro’s earlier accusations that Chavez’s enemies gave him cancer and that U.S. diplomats in Venezuela plotted to destabilize the government.

Following the news of his death, the White House released a statement reinforcing its goal of improving its relationship with the Venezuelan government.

"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," President Barack Obama’s statement read. "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."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Mike Rogers, R-Mich., also said he hoped for the two countries to turn a new leaf in their relationship.

"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 U.S.-Venezuelan relations," he said.

Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., issued a statement saying, "Sic semper tyrannis,” which translates to, "Thus always to tyrants."

Those words were used by John Wilkes Boothe before he fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre.

"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," Cotton added.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also used the opportunity to take a parting shot at Chavez, releasing a statement that read in part: "The Venezuelan people now have an opportunity to turn the page on one of the darkest periods in its history and embark on a new, albeit difficult, path to restore the rule of law, democratic principles, security and free enterprise system in a nation that deserves so much better than the socialist disaster of the past 14 years."

NBC News' Andrea Mitchell, Mary Murray, Edgar Zuniga, Sofia Perpetua, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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