By Rich Bockmann
U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) was part of the delegation that traveled to Venezuela for the late President Hugo Chavez’s funeral last week.
“The people there know me. I’m not some Johnny-Come-Lately,” Meeks, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in an interview. “He sent individuals down there with a passion and some credibility.”
Chavez died March 5 after being diagnosed with cancer in 2011.
Meeks, who made the trip to Caracas with U.S. Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) and U.S. Embassy Caracas Chargé d’Affaires James Derham March 8, said he first visited the country in 2000 when Chavez was elected and has been there several times since.
Meeks and Delahunt introduced the controversial Latin American leader to Joseph Kennedy II, and in 2006 Meeks helped broker a deal to provide Kennedy’s Citizens Energy with Venezuelan heating oil for low-income Americans in southeast Queens and the Bronx, among other places.
The congressman said while he did not always see eye-to-eye with Chavez, he admired his dedication to the plight of the poor.
“The issues for those who are poor [in Venezuela] are like it is to be poor anyplace else. The thing is before Chavez the poor were never on anybody’s mind,” he said. “He talked about the poor, average person all the time.”
“I had some disagreements with how the Chavez administration operated and moved the economy,” Meeks added. “I’m not a socialist. I’m a capitalist. I think you can do it right to help the poor and help those who don’t have jobs get jobs.”
Chavez pledged to strengthen his socialist hold on the country after winning re-election by 10 percentage points in an October race that drew an 80-percent voter turnout, Reuters reported.
The runner-up, Henrique Capriles, appears to be the strongest challenger to Chavez’s hand-picked successor, acting President Nicolas Maduro, in next month’s election.
“In the affluent areas, I was reading an article in one of the papers — you wouldn’t even know the funeral was that day. They are organizing to make sure they have a stronger voice. With the upcoming elections the opposition is starting to get its act together,” Meeks said, but he stopped short of making a prediction in the race.
“Life is not a rose garden for many people there, and it wasn’t before Chavez was president either,” Meeks added. “In fact, I can tell you from talking to people they definitely feel they have more of their agenda [thanks to Chavez]. There are better schools in areas where there were no schools, better infrastructure, and so that’s why election after election they came out in huge support for Chavez.
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.