Carter praises Chavez for 'improving the lives of millions'

While President Obama called the death of Venezuela strongman Hugo Chavez a chance for a "new chapter" in the Latin American country's history, former President Carter instead praised the strongman's "commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen."

News on Tuesday of Chavez's death after a battle with cancer generally was greeted with a mixture of relief and hope in Washington, where Chavez has long been a persona non grata. But Carter and at least one Democratic congressman instead publically mourned the socialist president.

Carter, offering "condolences" to Chavez's family, said he and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, met him during his first presidential campaign in 1998.

"We came to know a man who expressed a vision to bring profound changes to his country to benefit especially those people who had felt neglected and marginalized," he said. "Although we have not agreed with all of the methods followed by his government, we have never doubted Hugo Chavez's commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen."

Carter said Chavez's "bold" leadership helped cut poverty rates and integrate Venezuelans into public life. Left unsaid was how much the country's oil boom contributed to those advances, and some critics have said Chavez squandered the opportunity to put those proceeds to better use. Inflation and crime, meanwhile, have soared.

Chavez was criticized for unprecedented power grabs at home, and much of the disdain felt toward him in the U.S. came from his willingness to ridicule America's leaders, from Bush to Obama.

"We recognize the divisions created in the drive towards change in Venezuela and the need for national healing," Carter said. "We hope that as Venezuelans mourn the passing of President Chavez and recall his positive legacies — especially the gains made for the poor and vulnerable — the political leaders will move the country forward by building a new consensus that ensures equal opportunities for all Venezuelans to participate in every aspect of national life."

Democratic New York Rep. Jose Serrano, too, spoke highly of Chavez, based on the Venezuelan leader's visit to Serrano's district in 2005.

"Though President Chavez was accused of many things, it is important to remember that he was democratically elected many times in elections that were declared free and fair by international monitors," Serrano said. "President Chavez was a controversial leader. But at his core he was a man who came from very little and used his unique talents and gifts to try to lift up the people and the communities that reflected his impoverished roots. ... He understood democracy and basic human desires for a dignified life."

That statement drew a swift retort from Republicans.

“It’s simply insulting that a Democrat congressman would praise the authoritarian ruler Hugo Chavez. Chavez systematically cracked down on the basic freedom and liberties of Venezuelans, nationalized private industries and befriended anti-American dictators like Castro, Ahmadinejad, and Assad," Republican National Committee spokesperson Alexandra Franceschi said. "Americans should stand together with the freedom loving people of Venezuela as they hope for a peaceful transition to a democracy, instead of praising the former dictator."