The Rachel Maddow Show | March 05, 2013
>>> three months after he was sworn into office in april 2009 , president obama embarked on one of his first oversees trips. the president traveled south to trinidad and tobago to attend the summit of americas. three months after he was sworn in, april '0 , and it's the new president's first chance to engage with his fellow world leaders in the western hemisphere . it was all going along sort of swimmingly until this happened.
>> in a meeting with the leaders of 12 south american country, president obama sounded conciliatory.
>> i have a lot to learn, and i'm very much looking forward to listening.
>> but the meeting turned into yet another hugo chavez photo op . venezuela 's leader launched what appeared to be a publicity stunt, a presidential gift, a book written nearly 40 years ago about how european and american policies have hurt latin america .
>> welcome to your relationship with venezuela , new mr. president. enjoy your stay. it's not like the new president then could not see this sort of thing happening from hugo chavez . at the time president chavez had just recently expelled america 's ambassador to his country, insisting that the ambassador was plotting a coup to oust mr. chavez from office. mr. chavez held a televised rally after sending the american ambassador home, telling a throng of supporters, quote, go to hell a hundred times, bleeping yankees. well, hugo chavez died today at the age of 58. he lost a two-year battle with an undisclosed form of cancer, and the united states lost a man who had positioned himself for more than a decade now as america 's chief foe in its own hemisphere. during his 14 years in power, hugo chavez maintained a provocative and at times cartoonishly oppositional stance when it comes to his relationship with the u.s. government . he buddy up ostentatiously with the castro brothers in cuba . he allayed himself with mahmoud ahmadinejad , the president of iran . he signed oil contracts with the chinese government . he bought weapons and fighter jets from the russians. hugo chavez , while he was in power, while he was still a player on the world stage, became in this country almost a figure of fun for playing up his opposition to american leaders in very over-the-top ways, particularly when it came to former president george w. bush .
>> the devil came here yesterday.
>> translator: yesterday the devil came here. right here. right here. and it smells of sulfur still today. . that was in 2006 . hugo chavez referring to president george w. bush as the devil during a speech at the u.n. general assembly . because mr. chavez positioned himself as u.s. enemy number one in the western hemisphere , mr. chavez often got denounced in political terms in this country as a tyrant, as a tyrant and a dictator and a south american strongman thug. now that he is dead, there is a real question of whether that u.s. image of venezuela , and whether venezuela 's image of us dies with hugo chavez . i mean, venezuela is a serious country in the world stage. it is sitting on the world's largest proven oil reserves . it has more oil than even saudi arabia does, and that is in part what makes hugo chavez more than just a vitriolic leader who hated america . all of that oil gave him real power and influence. what happens to all of that oil now and that oil-related power now that hugo chavez is not in charge of it anymore. how much of his over-the-top opposition to the united states government was real, and how much of it was for show? the political posturing around hugo chavez , the screaming about sulfur and the devil and all of that, in a way it obscures how seriously we have been able to think about his legacy, both in terms of whether or not he really was the tyrant that american politicians have denounced him for being, and whether or not him dying could potentially change american announce in the world or the balance of power . in our own hemisphere. in case you're wondering what happens next in case you're wondering if our relationship with venezuela is going to get any less wacky any time soon now that he is gone, consider that the man who is expected to replace hugo chavez , the country's current vice president said today he believes that foreign imperialists, aka the united states , killed hugo chavez , poisoned hugo chavez with the cancer that he ultimately died from. venezuela 's vice president made that statement shortly after, you guessed it, expelling two u.s. diplomats from the country. so there is that for setting the tone. joining us now is pulitzer prize winning columnist for "the washington post " and msnbc political analyst eugene robinson . eugene covered venezuela for the post in the 90s when he was working at the post's bureau in buenos aires . thanks for being here.
>> it's great to be here, rachel.
>> do you think that hugo chavez was effectively the monster that he was made out to be in this country? he was obviously cartoonishly oppositional to us, but that led to some cartoonish characterizing of him too, didn't it?
>> it did. there was nobody quite like him. charismatic. he could act like a buffoon, but he was very smart and obviously, and tenacious and determined. was he a tyrant? you should remember he was democratically elected president of venezuela three times. with healthy majorities. and it is very clear that he had popular support. why did he have popular support? because for many, many years, for many decades, the poor of venezuela had been ignored by a corrupt political class and business class that essentially lived very well on the proceeds of all that oil, allowing none of to it trickle down, or so little to trickle down that the slums of caracas were just horrible places, violent places seething with anger. and what chavez could do was connect with those people. and give them hope, and then give them actual benefits in the form of health clinics and educational service they never had before. he paid attention to people who had been the left behinds, and they rewarded him with their very loyal support.
>> in terms of the criticism directed towards chavez as being essentially somebody who did not advance freedom in his country, even as he did advance economic populist aims, what do you make of those criticisms?
>> well, they have some merit. he leaned on, coerced, threatening to shot down, at times did shut down independent press voices and media voices. he was a -- he ridiculed his political opponents in the most vile ways. he gerrymandered the election districts in a way -- of course, where have we heard that before? that happens elsewhere as well. but he did do it in a particularly egregious way in venezuela to aid in his electoral prospects. he didn't want to leave anything to chance. so, no, he was not what we would call a lover of democracy as we would like to see it practiced.
>> as a leader who is, as you said, sui generous, and who was so much larger than life and was so dominant in the politics of that country, and in a country that has so much oil, when you look ahead to what comes after hugo chavez , do you see a period of chaos or do you feel like there is a way to predict what is going to happen next there?
>> well, first of all, let's hope it's not chaos. when chaos happens in venezuela , it's really bad. worse than in most places that i covered in latin america . something about venezuela , when there is a riot, there was a big one in the early '90s that they called the caracaso in which dozens and dozens of people were killed. i don't necessarily predict that, though. what i do think we know is nobody can be hugo chavez . it's very clear that the vice president, nicolas maduro was his anointed successor. i believe he returned to venezuela from cuba where chavez returned to venezuela from cuba where he was getting cancer treatment, in part to die in venezuela , but in so doing to essentially pass along the torch to maduro. we don't know him the way we know chavez , but we know that he is associated with the faction of chavez 's movement that is more closely aligned with cuba . so this may signal a continuation of a very close venezuela / cuba relationship. that doesn't bode particularly well for any sort of kumbahyah warming with the united states .
>> it's fascinating. he was a fascinating figure. the potential transition in his wake is going to be amazing to watch.
>> very -- in person a very bright and quick and witty person. a man of contradictions.
>> pulitzer prize winning columnist eugene robinson of the " washington post ," the only person i know who has met hugo chavez . gene, thank you for helping us understand this tonight. i really appreciate it.
>> happy to be here.
>> all right. we'll be right