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Chavez widely mourned, but some hope change on way

Wednesday - 3/6/2013, 5:51pm  ET

People gather honoring Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez outside Venezuela's embassy in Quito, Ecuador, Tuesday, March 5, 2013. Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced that Chavez died on Tuesday at age 58 after a nearly two-year bout with cancer. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)

PETER ORSI
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) -- Some cried, some cheered. Many Latin Americans mourned the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, leaders in Europe and Asia sent condolences, and Iran's president predicted great works in the afterlife.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, focused on "a new chapter" for Venezuela, following 14 years in which Chavez cast himself as a bulwark against U.S. domination.

Chavez, who died Tuesday at age 58, was seen as a hero by some for his socialist programs, his anti-U.S. rhetoric and gifts of cut-rate oil. Others considered him a bully who repressed his opponents.

A teary-eyed Bolivian President Evo Morales, one of Chavez's closest allies and most loyal disciples, declared that "Chavez is more alive than ever."

"Chavez will continue to be an inspiration for all peoples who fight for their liberation," Morales said Tuesday in a televised speech. "Chavez will always be present in all the regions of the world and all social sectors. Hugo Chavez will always be with us, accompanying us."

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, another left-wing fan of the Latin American strongman, told The Associated Press that Chavez's ability to shrug off American pressure and weather what he described as a U.S.-backed coup attempt had inspired the entire continent to defy Washington.

"The fact that he survived encouraged other Latin American nations to break free and put their own people ahead of corporate interests," Livingstone said in a telephone interview. "Before him, the governments there were just creatures of the White House. Now they are generally pursuing policies that help their own people."

The U.N. Security Council observed a minute of silence to honor the memory of Chavez at the start of a meeting on Wednesday morning.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the current council president, expressed the "deepest sympathy" of the U.N.'s most powerful body at Chavez' death. He then asked for a minute of silence and the 15 council members and other diplomats and U.N. staff in the room stood up to honor the late Venezuelan leader.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed sadness at Chavez' death and said he "spoke to the challenges and aspirations of the most vulnerable Venezuelans," provided new impetus for regional integration movements and played a vital role in peace talks in Colombia, U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said.

Chavez pulled Venezuela out of America's sphere of influence and embraced Washington's rivals including Cuba, Iran and Russia. Officials in all three countries had effusive praise for the late leader.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced a day of mourning and compared Chavez to a saint, saying he will "return on resurrection day."

Ahmadinejad said he has "no doubt Chavez will return to Earth together with Jesus and the perfect" Imam Mahdi, the most revered figure of Shiite Muslims, and help "establish peace, justice and kindness" in the world. The Iranian leader said he believes something "suspicious" caused the cancer that killed Chavez.

In Cuba, President Raul Castro's government declared two days of national mourning and ordered flags to fly at half-staff.

"It is with deep and excruciating sorrow that our people and the revolutionary government have learned of President Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias' decease," it said in a statement read on the nightly state TV newscast. "The Cuban people view him as one of their most outstanding sons."

Some islanders worried about the loss of the country's No. 1 ally, who has sent billions of dollars of oil to Cuba at preferential terms.

"It's a very tough blow. ... Now I wonder, what is to become of us?" said Maite Sierra, a 72-year-old Havana resident.

The government of the impoverished nation of Haiti, which benefited from Venezuela's largesse under Chavez, declared three days of mourning, with flags to fly at half-staff, nightclubs closed and dance music banned from the radio. A somber President Michel Martelly presided over a small ceremony on the grounds of the National Palace, calling Chavez "one of the biggest supporters Haiti has ever had."

"This is a sad day for Haiti," Martelly said.

Across Latin American, grief-stricken supporters lit candles, waved Venezuelan flags or brandished portraits of the late leader in solidarity with mourners in Venezuela.

In Moscow, candles, flowers, and a traditional Russian bottle of vodka were left outside Venezuela's embassy. Russian President Vladimir Putin called Chavez "an extraordinary and strong man who looked into the future and always aimed high," while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev posted photographs of himself with Chavez to his Facebook page.

The authoritarian president of Belarus declared three days of national mourning and suspended TV and radio for Chavez, who provided loans and oil to the former Soviet republic.

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