Venezuelans in New York are reacting to the death of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who died Tuesday afternoon, according to his vice president, Nicolas Maduro.
Chavez's health quickly declined, and earlier Monday the 58-year-old was said to be in "very delicate" condition with a severe respiratory infection.
In December, Chavez underwent a fourth cancer surgery in Cuba and then started chemotherapy.
Maduro also said on state television that an investigation is underway to determine whether Chavez's illness may have been caused by an enemy attack.
Throughout Venezuela, news of the leader's death sent crowds into the streets, with many people openly weeping.
Chavez, whose fourth presidential term began in January, had been one of the United States' most outspoken critics during his 14 years in power. He once called President George W. Bush "the devil" and courted friendships with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.
A military officer, Chavez first attempted to seize control of Venezuela through an unsuccessful coup in 1992, for which he served two years in prison.
Chavez was first elected to office in 1998, and in his first year in office, he called for a referendum and constitutional assembly to rewrite the Venezuelan constitution. He survived a 2002 coup attempt and abolished term limits through another referendum in 2009.
An admirer of Simon Bolivar, the Venezuelan liberator of South America, Chavez claimed he was leading a "Bolivarian" revolution to ensure greater class equality in his country. Governing according to what he called 21st century socialism, Chavez used some of Venezuela's oil wealth to fund social services for the poor.
Critics, including many Venezuelans expatriates in New York, say Chavez was a dictator who was only interested in acquiring power. They note that Chavez severely limited Venezuela's freedom of the press and accuse him of silencing his opposition and ruining the economy.
At Arepas Cafe, a Venezuelan restaurant on 33th Street and 36th Avenue in Astoria, local residents had mixed reactions to Chavez's death.
"Lost a big person that was trying to unify the Latin American countries," said one.
"I hope this leads to something better, like a better, more stable government," said another.
NY1 spoke to one girl whose parents are from Venezuela. She said her parents did everything they could, despite not living in the country, to fight back.
"I remember 12 years ago when he came into power, and my parents were just so sad," she said. "And they participated in every election. Even though they live in Miami, they go to the consulate, they do their vote. When the consulate closed in Miami, they went off to New Orleans and voted there. It's been a struggle in just trying to get him out."
The White House released a statement Monday evening saying in part that 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."
Now that Venezuela will have a new leader, the Obama administration may be looking to reset relations with that country, something that Professor Jose Antonio Ocampo of Columbia University said is a definite possibility.
"The vice president has made positive gestures with the United States, and actually, the U.S., of course, is also a major trading partner of Venezuela," Ocampo said. "So I’m hopeful that relations are improved within the mutual respect that has to take place among elected governments."
Chavez's Bronx Visit Led To Heating Oil Program
In 2005, hosted by Rep. Jose Serrano, Chavez visited the South Bronx, one of the poorest areas in the country. The Venezuelan leader urged CITGO and its shareholder, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) to set up a low-cost heating oil program for the area.
For several years, CITGO also gave funds to dozens of South Bronx community groups.
"Our country spent a lot of time criticizing his governing style, but we should not forget that he was elected, and re-elected and re-elected," Serrano said. "We easily call him a dictator, but how many dictators do you know that submitted themselves to a recall election and won that election? And his government always had victories at the polls recognized by the international community as being fair elections."
Many dissidents dispute that, saying that Chavez's elections were corrupt.
Venezuelan authorities said Monday that Maduro is now the interim president. Elections will be called in 30 days.
A state funeral will be held for Chavez on Friday.