OTTAWA – As he prepared to meet Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for the first time nearly four years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper drew an ideological line in the sand.
He called Chavez for how he saw him — the leader of an authoritarian petro state that he saw as a relic of the Cold War, one that was on the wrong side of sound economic theory and practice.
As Chavez, 58, finally succumbed Tuesday to the cancer that he had been fighting for nearly two years, Harper had kind words only for the Venezuelan people that the charismatic leftist had left behind.
The prime minister said he was offering his “condolences to the people of Venezuela,” and that he looked forward “to working with (Chavez’s) successor and other leaders in the region to build a hemisphere that is more prosperous, secure and democratic.”
Harper said he hopes the death of Chavez brings a more promising future for the Venezuelan people.
“At this key juncture, I hope the people of Venezuela can now build for themselves a better, brighter future based on the principles of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights,” Harper said in a statement Tuesday evening.
Harper clearly had no time for the Western Hemisphere’s most persistent opponent of the free market economics of Canada and the United States.
Chavez led a leftist revival across Latin America that posed a direct challenge to U.S. influence in the region.
Harper himself has in the past pointedly challenged the world view of the influential Venezuelan leader.
As Harper met with a reporter with the Postmedia News Service at 24 Sussex in April 2009 on the eve of the Summit of the Americas, the prime minister made it clear in no uncertain terms that Chavez was his political polar opposite.
Harper was curious to meet Chavez in person, and he fully expected him to use the growing global financial security to trumpet the success of his socialist policies.
But the prime minister was having none of it.
“What we’re seeing in the hemisphere is the time when the world has been moving towards a broad consensus on economic policy, you’ve had in the Americas — our own hemisphere — moving to cold war positioning —hard line capitalism and hard line socialism,” Harper said.
“There are those that will use the global financial crisis to try and say capitalism is discredited. We need to go back to the old state models, as I said economic nationalism, class warfare, or political authoritarianism.
“We think it says the opposite.”
Harper was willing to concede that the “turbo capitalism” that led to the recession needed to be reigned in.
But he wasn’t interested in any lessons in economics from Chavez.
“There’s nothing out here that says that running an authoritarian state on petro dollars is not going to get you very far in the long term,” Harper said.
“(But) that’s not why the Chinas, and Indias and South Koreas have been growing,” the prime minister added.
“It actually shows, contrary to what the worst demagogues say that good relations with the United States are beneficial to you and beneficial across the spectrum.”
In his 14 years in power, Chavez used his country’s lucrative oil wealth on social programs such as state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs.
Poverty declined during Chavez’s presidency amid a historic boom in oil earnings, but critics said he failed to use the windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars to develop the country’s economy.
Since them, Venezuela’s economy has sputtered as the output of its state-controlled oil company declined.
In December, two months after he won re-election, Chavez boarded a plane for Cuba for treatment of his cancer.
He blew a kiss to his country, and was never seen again in public.
The Harper government, meanwhile, was keen to engage with Venezuela, and forge economic links, at what it viewed as a critical turning point in history.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was to have travelled to Venezuela two weeks ago but the trip was abruptly cancelled because Chavez made an unexpected homecoming from Cuba.
Baird had been scheduled to hold meetings with government counterparts and other opposition representatives as part of a six-country tour of Latin America.
The Venezuelans found the atmosphere surrounding Chavez’s return to be too politically charged to host Baird.
The day before the news broke of Chavez’s departure from a Cuban hospital, Baird told The Canadian Press that he wanted to hold talks on increasing opportunities for Canadian businesses in Venezuela.
Baird said he had a full business agenda planned in Venezuela, but that “obviously we want to promote democracy, and we want to promote political freedoms.”
Baird also said he didn’t see “eye to eye” with the Venezuelans on their growing relations with Iran, a country Canada severed relations with last year and that faces United Nations sanctions over its nuclear ambitions.
Baird also said he planned to meet opposition figures in Venezuela — something that would have landed him squarely in the middle of the uncertainty unfolding about the whether Chavez would be able to carry on, or have to be replaced.
Almost four years ago, Harper himself said he was curious about meeting Chavez. In the end, Chavez made some hay at the 2009 Summit of the Americas, but Harper came out of the meeting pleased.
He pushed Canada’s trade agenda with Latin America and the Caribbean.
The day before he departed for Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, however, Harper knew his task wouldn’t be as straightforward as he would have liked.
He was expecting opposition from “countries that are opposed to basically sound economic policies, want to go back to Cold War socialism, countries that want to turn back the clock on the democratic progress that’s been made in the hemisphere.”
Seated at a table of a rear sitting room of his official residence, Harper said: “There’s no doubt that when you talk about basic values, even basic economic values you’ve got clearly some leaders who are not on the same page.”
On Tuesday night it seemed Harper clearly relished the chance to turn that page.
— with files from the Associated Press.