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

By Nick Thompson, CNN
March 6, 2013 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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
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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."

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