March 7, 2013 10:32:36 AM
NEW ORLEANS -- In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez offered to send thousands of soldiers, firefighters and volunteers to help with the cleanup. He also pledged $1 million in aid plus fuel to help rebuild hard-hit cities like New Orleans.
The offer, swiftly rejected, was part of a larger pattern: Chavez's repeated attempts to provide humanitarian relief to low-income and distressed U.S. families. Despite those efforts, he was never able to foster his image as a savior of the American poor like he did in Venezuela. More often, he was accused of orchestrating politically motivated ploys that in the end helped relatively few Americans.
"Many people questioned his motivation," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society think tank. "Was this a true humanitarian gesture or was it an opportunity to stick it in the eye of the United States? I think many people in the U.S. thought it was the latter."
Chavez died Tuesday after a battle with cancer, ending 14 years of rule and leaving the oil-rich Latin American nation divided over his fiery brand of socialism. Vice President Nicolas Maduro will run Venezuela as interim president and serve as the candidate for Chavez's socialist party in an election that must be called, constitutionally, within 30 days.
While much of Chavez's socialist vision would have been in line with that of many American liberals, he never gained widespread admiration in the U.S.
Hollywood actor Sean Penn and director Oliver Stone praised him, but they were the exception, and many were hesitant to embrace a leader with military roots who shut down media outlets and abolished term limits.
Complicating any potential ideological synergy, Chavez had a combative relationship with the U.S. leaders that went beyond politics.
In 2006, he famously called President George W. Bush the devil in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, saying the podium reeked of sulfur after the U.S. president's address. Chavez's inner circle has also claimed the U.S. was behind a 2002 coup to overthrow him. Yet across the years, he kept up a lucrative oil-export relationship with the U.S. while also spreading his petroleum-funded largesse around Latin America.