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THE SITUATION ROOM
Hugo Chavez Dies; Kerry Ends First Foreign Trip
Aired March 5, 2013 - 16:59 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: I want to go to Caracas right now. CNN's Shasta Darlington is on the scene for us. We were all bracing for this news, Shasta, but it has now happened. Hugo Chavez, just reiterating, now officially declared dead by the leadership in Venezuela. Venezuelan television reporting that only moments ago. You and I spoke earlier. Walk us through this process. What now happens, Shasta?
SHASTA DARLINGTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, basically this kicks off a new election. I just want to point out one thing, which I think is important to keep in mind, while you're right, many people were expecting this. You still have to remember that this is a country where so many people really fervently loved Chavez and they followed him closely.
And just last week, a poll showed that 57 percent of Venezuelans still thought that he was going to be cured and that he would come back as their president. So you may think that they were just denying what was so obvious to everyone else. But this is going to be a hard thing to swallow for a lot of people.
Now what will happen, of course, they will call new elections, new elections will have to be held within 30 days and according to most polls, the vice president, Nicolas Maduro is clearly in line to win those elections.
He doesn't have, again, that fervent support that Chavez does, but he is the person who's been setup to follow in his footsteps, to continue his socialist revolution. A lot of people from the poorer barrios, from the poor neighborhoods, support Chavez and feel that they are doing better after his 14 year rule. And they would like to see that continued -- Wolf.
BLITZER: He was 58 years old, Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. He has now passed away.
What do we know about the vice president who made the official announcement on Venezuelan television, Nicholas Maduro?
Does he have the same basic political views, sort of anti- American political views, anti-US views, that Hugo Chavez had?
DARLINGTON: Well, Wolf, I think the -- the views about him have sort of shifted. He comes from a humble background. He was a truck driver. And yet, a lot of people think, at least lately, he's actually been more of a hard-liner, more of a firebrand than Chavez, without the charisma.
Of course, a lot of that could be simply because he's trying to drum up the support, he's trying to rally people around him. And since he doesn't have that charisma, a sure way to do that is by pounding those anti-American drums, the imperialists.
At the same time, there had been some speculation that the United States could try and get a little closer to Venezuela once Hugo Chavez had passed. You know, as you know, there hasn't been an ambassador in -- they haven't shared ambassadors since 2010. So there had been some hopes that they could build up relations, although, of course, the United States does continue to buy Venezuelan oil. There is no embargo, like we see, for example, in neighboring Cuba.
But generally speaking, lately, he's been very much a hard-liner, very fiery speeches. And we can certainly expect more of that in the short-term, as they prepare for elections -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And he's speaking now live at the hospital where Hugo Chavez passed away, the vice president, Nicolas Maduro, who earlier in the day, accused what he called foreign enemies of Venezuela of poisoning Hugo Chavez, severely infecting him, causing his cancer. He has now passed away.
Also on this day, two U.S. Embassy officials, two U.S. military attaches, were expelled from Venezuela for illegal activities, coordination with the Venezuelan military, charges the U.S. has flatly denied.
Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon watching what's going on. There's a lot at stake right now, what happens next in Venezuela -- Barbara.
And you've been looking into this.
What do you see?
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, even as these two military attaches were expelled today, even as there is this very strange security relationship with Chavez's regime, this is a country that is very important to the U.S. business community.
Hundreds of U.S. firms do business with Venezuela. The -- it's a huge economic market. The U.S. exports autos, machineries, chemicals. And as Shasta just said, in return, imports a significant amount of oil from Venezuela. They are major suppliers.
So, in terms of the U.S. economy, U.S. businesses, they want to see a stable future for Venezuela. That's what they're looking for out of all of this, because it's such an important market on both sides.
And it's been very tough in recent years. Chavez close to Fidel Castro, but perhaps even more troublesome to the U.S., close to the Iranian leader, Ahmadinejad, said to have supported Hezbollah operatives. Very concerning to the U.S. that he was very much tied in to support networks for terrorism, even as he was a very flamboyant leader on the world stage. There was this very serious underlying concern.
You'll remember he went to the U.N. and criticized President George W. Bush, calling him the devil. And in return, you'll remember during a Latin America summit, King Juan Carlos of Spain became so irritated with Hugo Chavez, he told him flat out -- and I quote -- to "shut up.
So Chavez very flamboyant, but make no mistake, a very serious security concern about the regime he was leading.
And now, a lot of interest on the part of U.S. business and industry to see this market flourish -- Wolf.
BLITZER: And when you say the market, you're also talking about oil, Venezuela being a major oil exporting nation.
STARR: Well, absolutely. Depending on how the flows and the statics go, one of the top four suppliers to the U.S. of imported oil, it's been -- there have been sanctions about all of this because of their support -- their alleged support for terrorism and for Iran more specifically.
But that oil flow has continued. And, of course, it is very important in the -- to the United States, in the heating oil market especially, and in refined oil products, such as gasoline and other fuel products.
This is something that has been a fundamental part of the U.S. energy economy. So you're going to see a lot of U.S. businesses keep a very close eye on this transition in Venezuela. They're going to want to know that their investments are secure and that this is a stable country to invest in -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Barbara, hold on for a moment.
John King has been watching what's going on.
Lots at stake right now, potentially, in the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship, John, which is, as all of us know, since Hugo Chavez took over...
JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right.
BLITZER: -- has been awful.
KING: I remember dating back to the Bush administration, where they would orchestrate it -- world summits where they were both there. They were trying to pass each other. And the Bush people would always be sensitive of that, because they thought Chavez would try to strike up a conversation about trying to get around him.
He called George W. Bush "the devil."
I remember when Obama was -- at one point when he was reelected, he said he should stop worrying about global wars and deal with all his domestic problems here at home. The question is, what comes next?
Yes, there's a great opportunity there if -- if, and we've had this question in Libya, we've had this question in Iraq and other parts of the world -- if the government changes in a way that is open to international investment, U.S. oil companies, of course, other U.S. energy companies, other U.S. businesses, period, the question is, what comes next?
I was just talking to our friend, Alex Castellanos, the CNN contributor, on the way out here. And we were drawing the comparison, you know, what comes next?
Does the vice president get power?
Does the vice president keep consistent policies?
Perhaps. But he's not Hugo Chavez. Even in Cuba, you see when Fidel gives way to Raoul, the charismatic leader, that the people who support him and the people who oppose him have known for years it fades and it becomes a very different dynamic.
So I think the biggest question, as you wait now for the transition, is clearly someone who was a lightning rod for his supporters and for his global critics, has passed from the scene and what comes next?
BLITZER: Let's get someone else to weigh in right now.
Eva Golinger is joining us on the phone.
She's an attorney and writer in New York, has lived in Caracas.
She's written a few bestselling books, including "The Chavez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela."
For -- I take it, Eva, you were a former adviser to Hugo Chavez?
EVA GOLINGER, ATTORNEY AND WRITER: Yes. Good afternoon. Yes, and, also, a close friend. So, obviously, this news is very difficult, even though it's been something that we have been expecting to hear re--- in recent days, particularly because of the turn -- the bad turn, the worsening of Chavez's health.
So it's -- it's terrible news for millions of people in Venezuela and around the world who love Hugo Chavez, have had a very close connection with him for over a decade now. He has been, I think, probably the most, I would say, the president that's had the biggest impact on Venezuela and has dramatically transformed Venezuela in its history, I guess, since the times of independence and Simon Bolivar.
He has changed the lives dramatically of the majority of Venezuelans. He's altered the country forever. His policies, you know, have reduced poverty by more than half, have brought people out of dire circumstances that today enjoy a decent standard of living. You know, he -- his policies have implemented widespread nationally universal health care for all Venezuelans free of charge. And he's done extraordinary, extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary things for the country.
Of course, nothing is perfect and there have been adversaries. There have been problems. There have been moments throughout his presidential terms over the past almost 14 years where things haven't gone as great as they could.
But I would say overall that Chavez has a very positive balance in terms of his governing of Venezuela. And, you know, he shared this very, very close connection with the people of Venezuela, which is something that few leaders are ever capable of doing. And he's someone, Wolf, who really gave his life, gave every single part of him, all of his energy, you know, all of his soul to helping the people of Venezuela.
BLITZER: All right...
GOLINGER: So there -- there were those who loved him and there were those who hated him. But no one can deny that he dedicated himself to improving his country. He put Venezuela on the map and he recovered the Venezuelan national identity and the dignity of the Venezuela people.
BLITZER: Eva Golinger joining us on the phone, the author of "The Chavez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela."
Eva, thanks very much.
Juan Carlos Lopez is here from CNN Espanol.
He was democratically elected, but were those elections widely considered free and fair elections in Venezuela, the elections that brought him to power?
JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ, CNN ESPANOL CORRESPONDENT: They were considered free and fair, but the system was tilted toward the governing party, not only because of mistakes made by the opposition, that, at one point, didn't want to participate in congress. So he had Congress all to himself. He was able to change the laws. He was able to get Congress to give him almost complete power.
And then the opposition tried a comeback, which hasn't been successful.
Now, John was speaking about the transition. The constitution mandates a call for elections. That should happen in the next 30 days.
President Chavez had publicly said before he less -- left the last time to Cuba that Venezuelans should vote for Nicolas Maduro as their president. Now...
BLITZER: He's the vice president, right? LOPEZ: He's the vice president right now.
The main candidate, Capriles, the opposition candidate, will run against him.
But the question is, will the opposition have enough time to defeat Maduro when there's -- there will be a sympathy vote toward Maduro and toward people who are in power.
And a lot of people, as Eva was mentioning, a lot of changes happened in Cuba. Cuba, a very oil-rich country. The economy hasn't been, by many, considered as well-managed. But a lot of poor people did improve their living standards, so that's --
BLITZER: In Venezuela?
LOPEZ: -- in Venezuela. So that's going to be an interesting issue, to see how it evolves and what happens in (INAUDIBLE).
BLITZER: And, John King, it's going to be interesting to see how the Obama administration reacts to this development, sort of just wait -- wait on the outside and see what happens or see what else they can do.
KING: Obviously, you need to step back and wait for transition and the elections. As you note, the government of Hugo Chavez is already accusing the United States of meddling, maybe poisoning him in the first place. So there's that.
There's always going to be the conspiracy theories and the back and forth.
The question is, so what happens next, and not just for the Obama administration, for other leaders in the region.
As Juan Carlos knows well, a lot of leaders in the region, some of them Chavez's friends, others always wary of Chavez, tried to appeal to him to come back into the mainstream, to do other things.
And he was this enigmatic, iconic figure. And he was not going to listen. He was going to do things his own way.
The question is whether his hand-picked successor wins the election, whether the opposition can rally in time, how does that next leader decide they want to play their cards when they're new on the scene?
But remember, the wealth of Venezuela is what gives it sway. Chavez used that wealth to become a world figure, to travel to Iran, and to stick his eye at the West, sure, including the United States.
And the question becomes next is, will the next leader try to do the same thing or, again, lacking the personal history and the personality of a Chavez, will we have a quieter leader even if they have a -- relatively consistent policies? BLITZER: Let's go back to Shasta Darlington, our correspondent in Caracas, right now -- Shasta, can you sense what's going on on the streets of Caracas, other cities, now that the vice president has confirmed that Hugo Chavez has died?
What's been the reaction on the streets?
DARLINGTON: Yes. Well, Wolf, you can hear it. In fact, when the announcement was being made, you could hear cars -- some cars actually beginning to beep their horns. And I think there has been this tension over the last 24 hours, and even before that, with a lot of critics especially demanding more details about his health. Officials have repeatedly said that he wasn't doing well, that he was fighting for his life.
And so those critics have been saying, are they lying to us?
Is he already dead?
And finally, even a lot of his supporters saying we need to see him, we need to hear him. We don't even know if he's really in charge.
You know, we spoke to -- to some supporters who said I am a Chavez supporter. Until he comes out and says that what he definitely wants me to do is follow Maduro, I'm not going to.
So you've got to wonder, what are those people are going to do in the absence of that kind of confirmation?
Again, the polls say that Vice President Maduro will win elections if they're held in the next 30 days. And I -- I think that that's the very likely case.
But it is a good question to ask going forward, what kind of a president will he be?
A lot of Chavez's support has come from the -- the poorer neighborhoods. And it's those social policies that have got -- gotten him that support.
So it's logical to think that Maduro would have to follow those same policies to a certain degree.
On the other hand, a lot of the benefits that Chavez has extended, for example, to Cuba are very unpopular here. With his charisma, with his personality, he could pull it off.
We don't know if Maduro will be able to pull off some of those less popular policies. And it might, in fact, mean that a closer relationship with the United States could eventually develop -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Shasta, have you heard any word about a funeral, a state funeral?
Will it be a major state funeral, inviting leaders from all over the world, or will it be more of a private funeral, a private ceremony?
Any indication what we can expect in the coming days?
DARLINGTON: We don't have those details yet. I would expect something considerable. This is a -- this is a Latin America very different from one that we had even 10 years ago. There are a lot of left-leaning leaders who may not share all of the sort of socialist ideologies that Chavez had, but who have a strong history together. Even President -- Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is a lot stricter on human rights and has much more sort of pro-trade policies. These leaders will come together. They have a strong path together.
So, you can expect all of Latin-America will be coming and sharing in in the funeral here and sharing in this history that so many people think that Chavez improved and really brought so many people out of poverty. They will be celebrating that history, Wolf.
BLITZER: He was suffering for a long time from cancer, but it was always intriguing to me and perplexing why he always went to Cuba for the surgeries even though there are excellent hospitals in Caracas in Venezuela. Was it simply that he didn't trust the doctors in his own home country or he was more comfortable in Cuba? What was the explanation that they publicly gave, Shasta, and what do we really know?
DARLINGTON: Well, Wolf, there wasn't a great public explanation, but I think we all take for granted the reason he went to Cuba is because that's where his treatment would be totally private. You can't get that kind of privacy in Venezuela. There will be leaks. Cuba is the one place where information is very closely controlled.
You may remember, the president -- former president -- Brazilian President Lula encouraged to offer him to go seek treatment in Brazil. They have excellent facilities. Lula, himself, was treated for cancer there. But no, Hugo Chavez went to Cuba. It's widely understood that he did that so that nobody would know any details about his condition, about his treatment, unless, he and the government wanted them to be known, Wolf.
BLITZER: Shasta Darlington, standby. Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian is joining us on the phone right now. Doug, you went to Venezuela and you have some face time. You interviewed Chavez back in 2008. I believe you went there with Christopher Hitchens and Sean Penn. Sean Penn, a great admirer of Hugo Chavez. What was he like?
VOICE OF DOUG BRINKLEY, HISTORIAN: Well, yes. We went, the three of us, and I spent quite a bit of time with him. Well, he was very charismatic and quite sunny. I was surprised by his sense of humor. He also had a great love for Christ. And sometimes, we equate Chavez with Castro, but Chavez was not an atheist. But his Jesus was a radical Jesus who helped the poor.
I went to bunch of villagers with him, and he is very loved by the poorer people in Venezuela. I got concerned about his intellect. When at bunch of interviews, I mean, it was one thing to not like the Monroe doctrine and we discussed that, and it was another thing to think he was the, you know, ghost of Simone Bolivar left (ph) in him, but he didn't believe, he told me that Americans went to the moon, that that was staged in Hollywood.
He seemed to me to even question 9/11 and the towers being hit. So, I came across where he was very charismatic and liked in Venezuela by the poor people, but he was anti-American and had too much of a conspiratorial bent for me to admire.
BLITZER: When you say he was raising questions about 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center by those planes, what was he saying, that that was just some sort of a conspiracy was made up by the U.S.? Was that what he believed?
BRINKLEY: Yes. And that, you know, somehow, that United -- you know, he was very always worried that the United States was up to shenanigans and used our media culture to pull over -- you know, big ones on the world community. And I grew up in Ohio and Neil Armstrong was my hero. So, I was sort of a little surprised to hear he didn't go on at some length about Apollo 11 just being the farce.
And it made me realize we couldn't (ph) take him too seriously. On the other hand, I think our government has done the right thing. We kept trade relations. You can fly into Caracas. It's an important country. He did some good things in that country, but we don't need an embassy or an ambassador there. We just didn't have the right relationship with him.
I would also tell you, Wolf, the most interesting thing that I found was he wrote regular letters to Castro, and they would deliver them by courier. So, he would have a whole -- someday, there will be this vast volume, the Castro saw that (ph) letters all about, you know, socialist revolution of the world. They were almost inseparable, their love for each other.
BLITZER: So, Doug, when you hear the vice president today, the Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who's the front-runner to succeed Hugo Chavez, make this allegation, this charge that, quote, "foreign enemies poisoned the former -- the late president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez," and created this severe infection, creating his cancer, I suspect a lot of people in Venezuela probably will believe that kind of ridiculous accusations.
BRINKLEY: Well, exactly. And around Chavez, there's sort of a culture of nattiness, and as I mentioned, there's sort of hyper conspiracy theory. So, he's a perplexing figure, Hugo Chavez. I do think that he really did care about the disenfranchised and the poor, but he had turned the United States into being such a boogieman, that he wasn't man of (INAUDIBLE) in the end.
He loved American sports. I mean, the red jackets of Chavez came from the Cincinnati Red. He was great friends with the Red Shortstop, David Concepcion (ph), who was from Venezuela, and he loved American movies -- that he just didn't have any use for American government.
BLITZER: Doug, hold on for a moment. The vice president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, he made the official announcement on Venezuelan television just a little while ago that Hugo Chavez has passed away at the age of 58. I want to play that clip in Spanish. Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN Espanol is here in the SITUATION ROOM. He is going to translate simultaneously for us. This is the vice president, Nicolas Maduro, making the announcement.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NICOLAS MADURO, VICE PRESIDENT, VENEZUELA (through translator): We've received the most tragic and hard information that we can tell our people. At 4:25 this afternoon today, March 5th, our commander, President Hugo Chavez has died.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: You could see Juan Carlos, he was holding back, choking back tears, the vice president.
JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ, CNN ESPANOL: When we saw him in the press conference hours before, you could tell it was a somber mood. He was not in his regular loquacious mood. He looked very upset and -- they had the information. Now, what we had heard from sources coming back from last year was that they didn't see him living past March or April. That's how advanced his cancer was.
BLITZER: And they're chanting "the fight will go on." "The fight will go on." These are live pictures coming in from Caracas right now. The people now on the streets of Caracas presumably other cities in Venezuela as well. Those who loved Hugo Chavez obviously mourning his death. Let's listen in briefly, Juan Carlos. Don't translate yet. I just want to get a flavor.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: OK. We get the point. Juan Carlos, what did they say?
LOPEZ: "We are all Chavez." That's what they're repeating. "We are all Chavez." And I guess the question now, Wolf, is, will there be Chavismo without Chavez? Will the revolution survive without Hugo Chavez? And many believe that he was the support behind that government and none of this -- nobody in the government has his support within the people.
BLITZER: We heard earlier one of his great admirers -- Alex Castellanos, is joining us now. Alex, I know you were not one of his great admirer, Hugo Chavez. Your family came as refugees from Cuba to the United States and have been opposed to the Castro regime all these years?
ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Yes. And a lot of what we've seen in Cuba, over the years, we've seen repeated in Venezuela. You know, the other side of the story, of course, in Venezuela is a dictator. This is a man who if you disagreed with him, something in public you disagreed with, you could disappear.
People would show up at your business and it would be closed, and all of a sudden, there's a show trial on television and you're destroyed in the news media, which, of course, he controlled. He took one of -- a country that had the most resources in the world, natural resources, and they couldn't keep their street lamps on at night.
They run out of food in the country because he takes from the rich and he gives to the poor, making him very popular with the poor, but you don't build an economy that way. So, no, for a lot of folks like me from Cuba, this is -- our regret today is that Fidel Castro didn't die (ph) first.
BLITZER: Fidel Castro is still alive. His brother, Raul Castro, is the president of Cuba right now. Juan Carlos, I assume you've been to Venezuela recently. What is it like there on the ground? We're going to bring in Shasta Darlington who's there right now. She's going to weigh in as well.
LOPEZ: Very polarized country and a very divided country. Venezuela had high inequality and President Chavez, even by international organizations that criticize to a human rights situation said that situation did improve for poor people, that the levels of literacy improved, that the access to health improved. But as Alex was saying, it was a very polarized country. It was a divided country. It still was.
I had the opportunity of speaking to President Chavez in 2010. And, he was able to convince a lot of people to vote for him, but then you could -- be in Caracas, you could be at a fancy restaurant and order the most exquisite plate and there wouldn't be milk for a coffee or for cappuccino. So, it was a very strange (ph) situation, a country with a lot of resources that exported most of its oil directly to the U.S.
And other countries in the region criticized Chavez for being so openly critical of the U.S. while he had a line of axis. They said he has his own free trade agreement with the U.S. selling the U.S. oil.
BLITZER: And John King is here. You know, the U.S. has a diplomatic relations with Venezuela, albeit not at the ambassadorial level right now, but there diplomats, U.S. diplomats in Caracas, Venezuelan diplomats here in Washington. They will presumably, as Shasta Darlington, said, be a major state funeral in the coming days.
World leaders presumably will be invited. So, the question is, who will the United States send to represent the United States at this funeral? I don't know the answer. You don't know the answer wither, but it's a tough question for the administration.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's a tough question for the administration, and the question is should they answer the question by looking back which means they would send nobody or (INAUDIBLE) delegation or do they answer it by looking forward saying this could be a potential opening, let send somebody that shows at least some level of respect and outreach to have some conversations while on the ground, because if you have ever been to diplomatic funerals in the past, yes, there is mourning, yes, there is a bit of a historical prospective, but there also is opportunity when you get all of these leaders together.
So, the administration has to make that calculation. As they do so, Wolf, you know, remember, Hugo Chavez was one of the great me meddlers in the region in the sense that I'm from Boston, one of the great (INAUDIBLE). Remember Joe Kennedy, the former congressman, the son of Robert Kennedy, runs a fabulous organization called Citizens Oil that gives low-income people free or very discounted --
BLITZER: Here in the United States.
KING: Here in the United States, in the New England are, home heating oil. One of his major suppliers was Hugo Chavez. And Joe Kennedy was often criticized for that saying why are you taking this from the socialist, this enemy of the United States, this man who calls our president devil or worse, and he said, my job is to get oil to poor people, and he's helping me.
And Chavez knew how to play that. Yes, we've talked about him manipulating the media in his own country. He was one of the great characters on the world stage in his own way, too, and he knew how to get -- right in to our politics to help try in his way to advance his own.
BLITZER: I want to play the clip. This is one of the most famous clips of Hugo Chavez who just passed away at the United Nations and speaking of the then president, George W. Bush.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HUGO CHAVEZ, PRESIDENT, VENEZUELA (through translator): The devil came here yesterday. Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today. This table that I'm now standing in front of, yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as at the devil came here.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Richard Roth was there that day back in 2006 when Hugo Chavez was addressing the United Nations General Assembly. Richard, all of us remember when he referred to the president of the United States as the devil. What was it like?
RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That was an incredible day in U.N. history, and of course, depending on your political view point, if you were on the west side and along with the United States, it was disgusting, according to diplomats. And if you were among the dozens of countries here who believe that the big powers run rough shot over them, you kind of privately at time secretly supported what Chavez was saying about the U.S. president.
It certainly is always talked about. I'm not sure if Chavez returned, maybe once more since then, I'm not sure, but there was always some disappointment among the media if Chavez wasn't attending one of those annual general assembly sessions. He was a wild card, unpredictable. In that speech, he also blasted the rest of the countries there in the general assembly saying it was worthless. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, I asked just minutes ago about the passing of Hugo Chavez.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROTH: It was late (ph) news, the Venezuelan leader Chavez has officially been announced passed away. I wonder if you could talk about the man, his legacy, his appearance here at the U.N. Did you speak with him often? Whatever you can offer at this time. Thank you.
BAN KI-MOON, U.N. SECRETARY GENERAL: This is the first time that I hear from you that he has passed away. As a president of Venezuela, he has been making his own contributions to his own country's development. At the same time, as the secretary general while I'd be able to issue a more formal statement, I'd like to convey my deepest condolence to the families and people and government of Venezuela on the loss of President Chavez. You will have a further statement from me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ROTH: And I remember, Wolf, a couple of years ago, Venezuelan's U.N. ambassador quit, objecting to the policies of his leader Hugo Chavez. You don't often see that here on the U.N. grounds. So, Chavez's passing definitely takes away one of the mercurial leaders on the world scene. No idea of the impact here on the global organization -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Richard Roth, thanks very much.
Juan Carlos Lopez, our correspondent from CNN Espanol, interviewed Hugo Chavez back in 2010. We have an excerpt. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HUGO CHAVEZ, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Obama to me until now has been a great disappointment, a great disappointment from my point of view. To the great expectations he helped generate of great change within the United States and abroad. But mostly abroad, because one can't get involved in internal decisions.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLIZTER: Juan Carlos, you remember that interview. So give us a little background, a little flavor. Did he really hate the president of the United States? Obviously he called the former president George W. Bush the devil. Said it smelled of sulfur over at the United Nations general assembly. Clearly, he didn't have those harsh feelings about President Obama.
JUAN CARLOS LOPEZ, CNN ESPANOL CORRESPONDENT: No, not at all, and one of the things I'm remembering is how good of a communicator President Chavez was. He was aware of the importance of the media. He was aware of everything that was going on. He prepared for the interviews, and he had a very good concept for President Obama, but said after seeing his first -- and this was 2010, after seeing his first two years, that he wasn't really that positively surprised by the U.S. government.
But he didn't have the harsh words that he did for President Bush. It was interesting. And remember, he gave him a book at one of those summits. John (ph) was talking about this. He took every opportunity possible to show that he was trying to get things better.
ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Wolf, when you're a dictator in a country like this, you need an enemy. You need the great Satan on the other side of the Caribbean.
BLITZER: Or in this particular place, the devil?
CASTELLANOS: The devil, which he may be visiting now himself. But you need that to keep the country together. You don't have a positive agenda, uplifting the entire country and unite the country. You play the rich against poor. You need the boogey man across the sea.
The other thing that characterized Venezuela under Hugo Chavez is fear. This was a violent country. This was a country where the law disappeared, and Hugo Chavez was the law. If you said something he didn't agree with, that could be the end of you. You'd disappear.
So, yes, he took from a lot of people. South America, Latin America, have been characterized for years by the countries with tremendous potential where the elites gobbled up everything. And as the world has changed in the past 20 years and people got more information, more communication, they could see what was going on, you begin to see these populous revolts. And many countries where the elite hung on opened the door to people like Hugo Chavez to go and --
BLITZER: But I suspect, Alex, a lot of the leaders of South America, Central America will come to this funeral.
CASTELLANOS: Most of them will. No, he's a -- there is a populous movement around the world. We've seen it in Egypt and we've seen it in Latin America. And Hugo Chavez tapped into that, I think, with fear.
BLITZER: They are lowering the tag to half staff in Venezuela right now. These are live pictures coming from Venezuelan TV. Go ahead, John. You want to wrap this up?
KING: I just wanted, correct me if I'm wrong, my recollection is too, he became more authoritarian as his term in power lapsed on. He seized - there were some private oil fields when he first came to power. If I'm right, I remember the United States criticizing him for seizing the last ones. In terms of the media control, he refused to renew the license, I think, of one of the major television players. And Doug Brinkley was mentioning his conspiracy theories. Which reminded me, I had forgotten. But Doug's reference brought it back to me. He was the central figure in an Oliver Stone movie, "South of the Border," I think it was, back in 2009 or so. I remember there was a big international stir because Chavez loved the movie, loved working with Oliver Stone. I believe the premiere was in Venice. I don't know why that comes back into my head, but it does.
BLITZER: Stuff we always remember. We're going to check back with Shasta Darlington who is in Caracas. We're going to continue to watch what's going on.
Just to recap for our viewers here in the United States and around the world, just about an hour or so ago, the official announcement came from the vice president of Venezuela, Nicholas Maduro, announcing that Hugo Chavez has died at the age of 58.
Christiane Amanpour is joining us right now as well. Christiane, you've spent some time in Venezuela. You've seen what's going on. What do you think happens next?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (on the phone): Well, I've covered it from afar, actually, and we've all been watching and waiting to see what happens next. Likely the vice president will either step in or there will be new elections.
This has been something that most people have been awaiting for a long time now, and especially today as the vice president took a fairly unusual step to spend a long time on television, as you've been reporting, and talking about Hugo Chavez. It reminded me of the old sort of communist propaganda machine, getting people ready for the final announcement. And of course his final announcement has arrived.
But he did make some rather unusual accusations, the vice president, lashing out on all sides. Blaming the United States, for instance, of conspiring to poison Chavez, and expelling -- announcing that he was going to expel the U.S. military cache and others. Of course, the U.S. State Department has had a furious reaction to that, completing denying it, of course, and saying that those allegations are absurd. And if they don't stop, they have their own recourse. Obviously hinting that they might be able to expel Venezuelan diplomats.
But beyond that, obviously, there is a long-time festering relationship between Hugo Chavez in Venezuela for the last 15 years since he's been in power and the United States. He's taken enormous pride in kicking sand into the face of Uncle Sam, as one analyst put it to me, and this was part of his populism. Part of his charisma. People say that he had charisma and part of his sort of his banding, sort of quote/unquote on the side of the press against imperial powers.
I mean, the bottom line is, as long as Venezuela continues to benefit from the very high price of oil, which is happening right now, and as we know has the world's largest reserves of oil - larger even than Saudi Arabia -- it's likely to continue, at least for the foreseeable future as it is right now.
BLITZER: Christiane Amanpour as well. Stand by, Christiane. Interesting. The last tweet on Twitter from Hugo Chavez back in February said this. There it is up on the screen in Spanish. The translation: "I still cling to Christ and trust in my doctors and nurses. We will live, and we will win." That from Hugo Chavez, who passed away just a little while ago at the age of 58. We'll continue the breaking news and all of the day's other news, right after this.
BLITZER: I just want to recap the breaking news that we've been following for the last half hour. The vice president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, announcing that the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, has died at the age of 58. We're going to have much more on the implications of what's going on.
We're going back to Caracas. Our own Shasta Darlington is on the scene. Much more for what this means for the United States, the rest of the Western Hemisphere now that Hugo Chavez has passed away. That's coming up right at the top of the hour.
But there's other news we're following right here in Washington. The powerful Democratic senator from New Jersey, Robert Menendez, is now breaking his silence just one day after an escort who claimed months ago he paid her for sex came out and totally recanted her story.
Our chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash is up on Capitol Hill working the details. She's joining us now with the latest. Dana?
DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, Senator Menendez clearly feels vindicated, but the salacious story about allegedly using prostitutes is not over.
BASH (voice-over): The woman in this video posted on the conservative Daily Caller Web site days before the November election, alleged that Senator Robert Menendez paid her $100 for sex in the Dominican Republic.
Now in this affidavit, Nexus de Los Santos Santana says she is the woman in the obscured video and that she was not paid to have sex with Menendez, but was paid to lie about it.
I am the person in the video. That is me and those are my words but this statement is not true, she said in the affidavit. Menendez was eager to find the cameras to say, I told you so.
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: From the very beginning, I said that nameless, faceless anonymous sources took - took from right- winger blogs. Took this story, which were just false smears right before an election cycle, attempted to do it then. And ultimately drove it into the mainstream press but there were never anything other than false smears.
BASH: A key question now, if the woman in the video was paid to lie, who paid her and why?
MENENDEZ: Your guess is as good as mine.
BASH: De Santos santana says her appearance was arranged by a Dominican lawyer who scripted what she now says are false allegations about Menendez paying her for sex.
For what reason? Is it, as Menendez alleges, partisan politics? ABC News is now revealing that it interviewed the same woman and one other (INAUDIBLE) "The Daily Caller." And that the interviews were instigated by unnamed Republican operatives last fall right before Menendez' re-election. ABC News says it decided not to air the video because of "doubts about the women's veracity and identity."
But the conservative Web site that did publish the videos is standing by its story. Listen closely to follow this. The Daily Caller insists the woman now saying she was paid to lie about being Menendez's prostitute is not the woman in this video claiming Menendez paid her for sex.
DAVID MARTOSKO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE DAILY CALLER: She clearly didn't identify the people she said she was paid to identify. And the woman we interviewed went by a different name. Her age doesn't even match up.
BASH: Beyond the salacious he said/she said about prostitutes, law enforcement sources say the FBI is investigating whether Menendez improperly used his power and influence as a senator to help his campaign donor and friend Dr. Solomon Melgen with a port security contract in the Dominican Republic.
The FBi is also interviewing Melgen for potential health care fraud and raided his doctor's office in Florida earlier this year. Menendez repeatedly denies doing anything wrong in helping his friend.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MENENDEZ: We raised questions all the time on a wide range of (INAUDIBLE) on public policy issues, and we think that those are all legitimate. And, in fact, you know, after any review will be proven to be.
BASH: Now, the woman who says that she was paid to lie about being a prostitute for Senator Menendez was supposed to have a court hearing in the Dominican Republic today, but it was pushed back until June 10. Now the courts down there are hoping that Senator Menendez comes down to be a part of it, but a spokesman for the senator tells me he that he does not plan to come down to the Dominican Republic to attend that hearing.
BLITZER: What a story this is. All right, Dana, thanks very much for that comprehensive report.
A lot has happened over the last 11 days. Dennis Rodman cozied up with North Korea's Kim Jong-Un. Iran said it would talk to the United States and the bloodshed in Syria spilled into neighboring Iraq. All the while the Secretary of State John Kerry has been traveling the world on this, his first official overseas trip.
Our foreign affairs correspondent Jill Dougherty had a chance to be with him from the start and she actually sat down with him today on his final stop in Doha, Qatar.
JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in our interview with Secretary Kerry here in Doha, you could hear a shift in message on Syria. Openly admitting that having other countries armed the opposition is part of an overall plan.
DOUGHERTY (voice-over): At the last stop on his 11-day nine- nation trip, John Kerry, in his first interview with CNN as secretary of state, said, don't look for the United States to send weapons to Syrian opposition fighters any time soon.
(On camera): The concern, the worry by the administration really has been that if you send arms to the Syrian opposition, they would be diverted into the hands of extremists. Now Monday you said there's a very clear ability now --
JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is in fact getting to them.
DOUGHERTY: So if that's the case, then what is the problem?
KERRY: President always has options and always has the right to adjust the policy as he goes forward. At the moment, this is the calibration that the president believes is correct to try to give the opportunity for a diplomatic solution.
DOUGHERTY (voice-over): Rebel fighters already are getting weapons from other countries, he said.
KERRY: You have to look at this holistically and in the whole it is having an impact. Now in the next weeks and months, our hope is that this ratcheting up can avoid the level of killing and provide a window of opportunity for President Assad and the Russians and Iranians and others to get a negotiation that actually saves lives and provides a transitional government.
DOUGHERTY: On Iran, Kerry said Tehran should be willing to prove to the world that its nuclear program is peaceful.
KERRY: There are lots of other countries that have peaceful programs and prove it to the world. This should not be complicated.
DOUGHERTY: I also asked Kerry about former basketball player Dennis Rodman's trip to North Korea.
(On camera): He is not a diplomat, as we know very well. It was a bit of a circus but it -- would it be valuable on any level to talk with him, find out what his impressions were? After all, he's -- he'd met with Kim Jong-Un?
KERRY: I have great respect for Dennis Rodman as a basketball player and, you know, as a diplomat he was a great basketball player. I think that this issue is an issue that needs to be dealt with government to government.
DOUGHERTY (voice-over): And what about Kerry's own new role as secretary of state? On almost every question he deferred to the president's views but insisted he's his own man.
KERRY: The president asked me not to come on to be a "yes" person. He asked me to come on to share my views, my thinking, my years of experience, and I don't think the president appreciates just "yes" people.
DOUGHERTY: John Kerry heads back to Washington Wednesday. He says he'll brief the president on his trip and also on meetings that he had with more than 40 international leaders -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jill Dougherty, thanks very much.
Jill is traveling with the secretary of state in Doha, Qatar.
Still ahead, we're going to have much more on the breaking news we've been following. The Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is dead. We'll get the first reaction from the Obama administration.
BLITZER: We've been following the news that Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, has died at the age of 58. That announcement about an hour or so ago, coming from the vice president of Venezuela, Nicholas Maduro, who himself is considered a front runner potentially to succeed Hugo Chaves.
We've been anxious to get some U.S. reaction to what's going on. Gloria Borger is here.
You've been on the phone with folks, Gloria. What are -- what are you hearing?
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I spoke with a senior administration official about this, Wolf. And of course, he told me that this death has been highly anticipated. They've been following it for quite some time. They say their expectation is that there will be a free, fair, and credible election in Venezuela. They understand, of course, that Maduro is the front runner.
And they say they are open to what one senior administration official called to me a more constructive relationship with the Venezuelan government. They believe it is, quote, "counterproductive to be at odds." And that's why this expulsion of these military attaches was not welcome news by the administration -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Did they say anything about whether or not the U.S. will send a high-level, mid-level, low-level representative to the expected state funeral of Hugo Chavez?
BORGER: No, we didn't -- we didn't talk about that. We talked about this, the expulsion of these military attaches --
BLITZER: They flatly deny that these attaches were engaged --
BORGER: Attaches --
BLITZER: -- an improper activity?
BORGER: And quite honestly, their interpretation of this is that Maduro doing this is not a sign of strength, that they've lost a charismatic leader in Chavez, and that they need to sustain their party. So there was some sense that I got that there's a feeling in the administration that this was a way for Maduro to kind of whip up some kind of nationalistic sentiment for his own politics in Venezuela, in order -- in order to win an election and --
BLITZER: Because he was on television today for hours.
BLITZER: At this news conference, making statements.
BORGER: That's right.
BLITZER: Presumably, sees this as an opportunity to try to get some support in this upcoming election.
BORGER: That's right.
BLITZER: We just got a statement, Gloria, from Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee on the death of Hugo Chavez.
"Hugo Chavez was a destabilizing force in Latin America and an obstacle to progress in the region. I hope his death provides an opportunity for a new chapter in U.S./Venezuelan relations."
That's very similar to what the Obama administration's reaction is.
BORGER: It is. And this senior administration said to me, we would not be opposed to restoring some kind of diplomatic relations as well as having an ambassador over there, but I was told, we need to see more than what we saw today from Maduro in order to do that. The feeling in the administration is that they should not have to be at odds with Venezuela, and they also believe that over the years, they have diminished Chavez's stature by not engaging for him in kind of a tit-for-tat and I don't think they intend to do that right now -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. The U.S. and Venezuela do have diplomatic relations, but not at the ambassadorial level.
BORGER: Right. Right.
BLITZER: That could be upgraded, assuming whoever is elected the next president of Venezuela eases or changes the policies of Hugo Chavez.
BORGER: That's right. And what was made very clear to me is that they're not going to take any bait over what occurred today. That they want these elections to be free and to be fair.
BLITZER: Because not only did they expel two U.S. diplomatic personnel, these military attaches.
BLITZER: But they also accuse, quote, "foreign enemies", foreign enemies of plotting to poison Hugo Chavez, to give him a severe infection, to create the cancer and effectively to kill him.
BORGER: And -- they believe that's a sign of fear, not a sign of strength.
BLITZER: Stand by. We're going to have much more right at the top of the hour. We're following the news, Hugo Chavez is dead.
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. The death of a fierce U.S. adversary, Venezuela is blaming its enemies for the fate of the president, Hugo Chavez.
Plus, a fierce storm plows through the Midwest right now. Will the East Coast get snowed under?
And Jeb Bush for president? A CNN interview on the Republican's future and his family's political dynasty.
I'm Wolf Blitzer along with Kate Balduan. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.