Skip to main content

Ex-London mayor pays tribute to 'comrade' Hugo Chavez

By Nick Thompson, CNN
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
  • Livingstone calls Chavez's death a "sad loss," calls him a "friend and comrade"
  • Ex-mayor of London signed controversial deal for discounted Venezuelan fuel in 2007
  • Livingstone agreed to advise Chavez in exchange for £14 million fuel discount
  • Ex-mayor: Chavez saw struggle between "corporations and people who get screwed by them"

London (CNN) -- Former London mayor Ken Livingstone paid tribute to his "friend and comrade" Hugo Chavez, calling him the first Venezuelan president to "put his people before the interests of American oil companies."

Chavez, who died Tuesday, used some of Venezuela's vast oil wealth to bankroll huge social programs for the poor during his 14-year presidency. Critics, on the other hand, say much of the country's oil riches were squandered by a corrupt administration more focused on consolidating political power than lifting people out of poverty.

MORE: Divided Venezuelans mourn death of Chavez

Livingstone, nicknamed "Red Ken" for his socialist leanings, struck a controversial deal in 2007 with Chavez to fuel London's buses with discounted Venezuelan fuel, in exchange for advice on how to develop Venezuela's urban infrastructure.

While Livingstone used the £14 million ($21m) fuel discount to subsidize buses for the poor in London, his critics say the deal exploited and further impoverished the poor people of Venezuela. His successor, Boris Johnson, promptly cancelled the deal upon taking office in 2008.

Army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, who led a 1992 attempted coup, speaks to reporters on March 26, 1994, after he was freed from jail. Chavez was freed after charges were dropped against him for leading the first of two attempted coups against the government of former President Carlos Andres Perez, who was later removed from office. Army Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, who led a 1992 attempted coup, speaks to reporters on March 26, 1994, after he was freed from jail. Chavez was freed after charges were dropped against him for leading the first of two attempted coups against the government of former President Carlos Andres Perez, who was later removed from office.
Political career of Hugo Chavez
Photos: Political career of Hugo Chavez Photos: Political career of Hugo Chavez
Polarizing life and times of Hugo Chavez
The quotable Hugo Chavez
Amanpour: Hugo Chavez had cult following
Venezuela faces a challenging future

Livingstone dismissed criticism of the deal, saying the advice he and his associates gave Venezuela would have cost "hundreds of millions of pounds" from the private sector, and insisting Chavez only ever had the interests of Venezuelans in mind.

"It's very few world leaders who remain unchanged," Livingstone told CNN. "And it's hard to think of anyone who has been in power that long who's carried on looking after the ordinary population rather than enriching themselves."

MORE: Venezuela's interim leader in the spotlight

The former mayor first met Chavez during the Venezuelan leader's 2006 visit to London and said Chavez's offer of discounted oil for advice was characteristic of a man who saw himself as more than just the president of Venezuela.

He said: "Chavez saw clearly that his job was to look out for the people of Venezuela, but he also saw that it was a global struggle between the great corporations and the vast mass of the people who get screwed by them."

Livingstone, who would end up travelling to Caracas in 2008 to deliver the advice he promised as part of the oil deal, was taken aback by the "proper welfare state" Chavez had created through his initiatives.

"I found it amazing the number of 40-year-olds wandering around with braces on their teeth, because there hadn't been a dentist when they were a kid," he said. "There were little old ladies carrying around copies of the constitution which they could read, because [under Chavez] everyone got access to literacy programs."

Calling him a "pleasure to be with," Livingstone said Chavez told him he never planned on being a politician - and that Chavez only became more radical following the failed 2002 coup attempt, which he blamed on the U.S.

MORE: America reacts to Chavez's death

The coup fell apart within 48 hours and "El Comandante," as he is affectionately known in Venezuela, was restored to office. Livingstone, who called Chavez a man with great tales, says the South American leader's "best story" was his version of events during the coup.

Livingstone said Chavez told him that the generals who sprung the coup didn't want to kill the president themselves, so Chavez claimed three Americans whom he did not identify were flown in to kill him instead.

"Chavez told me that the three Americans were ushered into the room where a sergeant with a machine gun was guarding him. And the sergeant, who wasn't stupid, realized that after they killed Chavez they'd kill him as a witness. And so he turned his gun on the three men and said 'you leave the room or I'll kill you'," Livingstone told CNN.

A State Department official categorically denied Chavez's "ridiculous" claim and told CNN the U.S. had in fact alerted Chavez to a "credible assassination plot" on his life in the days before the coup.

Souring U.S.-Venezuela relations reached their nadir when Chavez called George W. Bush "the devil" in a speech in front of the United Nations General Assembly.

WATCH: Chavez calls Bush "the devil" at U.N.

"Coming so close to death [in 2002] really pushed Chavez to the left," Livingstone said.

"If you think George W. Bush has authorized your assassination, you're not going to be very friendly about the U.S. after that."

Part of complete coverage on
Hugo Chavez
April 11, 2013 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
split venezuela capriles maduro
Less than six weeks after President Hugo Chavez's death, Venezuelans will head to the polls Sunday to pick a new leader.
March 8, 2013 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
The poor, usually marginalized by Latin American politicians, became Chavez's main weapon.
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1146 GMT (1946 HKT)
The plan to embalm the body of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may have hit a snag.
March 9, 2013 -- Updated 0331 GMT (1131 HKT)
The body of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is the latest in a long line of world leaders whose remains have been embalmed and displayed.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1038 GMT (1838 HKT)
Hugo Chavez, the polarizing president of Venezuela who cast himself as a "21st century socialist" and foe of the United States, died Tuesday.
What is your reaction to President Chavez's death? How do you think it will affect Venezuela's politics? How does is affect your country?
March 5, 2013 -- Updated 2307 GMT (0707 HKT)
CNN's Rafael Romo looks back at the life of recently deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
March 4, 2014 -- Updated 1907 GMT (0307 HKT)
Venezuela has been transformed while Chavez was in office. Browse through the picture to explore his legacy.
March 5, 2013 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
A look back and the life and legacy of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. CNN's Jim Clancy reports.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Hugo Chavez played key role in focusing attention on the poor. But Frida Ghitis says in the process of helping the poor, he undermined the democracy.
March 8, 2013 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Jesse Jackson: Chavez's death an opportunity for U.S. and Venezuela to heal relations.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
The death of the charismatic but controversial leader leaves many unanswered questions that Venezuela and the world must now grapple with.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 0135 GMT (0935 HKT)
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sings with CNN's Larry King prior to his 2009 interview.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1406 GMT (2206 HKT)
News of Chavez's death drew impassioned reactions from around the world, as leaders and other public figures weighed in on his legacy.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 0724 GMT (1524 HKT)
CNN looks back at some of the more memorable things President Hugo Chavez said during his life -- like calling George Bush the devil.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1034 GMT (1834 HKT)
He began his career as a bus driver, then rose through the ranks to become a member of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's inner circle.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 0753 GMT (1553 HKT)
Chavez will be remembered for improving the wealth and political participation of the poor. But his death leaves an economy in tatters, some say.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 0333 GMT (1133 HKT)
Kevin Spacey, Naomi Campbell, Diego Maradona. Browse through the pictures of Hollywood icons and global superstars that met Chavez.
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1041 GMT (1841 HKT)
Chavez cultivated a larger-than-life appearance. But even after years in office, his legacy may be more fleeting than his outsize personality suggested.
March 5, 2013 -- Updated 2240 GMT (0640 HKT)
Watch: In a 2009 interview, Larry King talks to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez about Obama and Venezeula's global role.
Get the latest news, analysis, commentaries and videos from Venezuela in Spanish language on CNN Español.