Late yesterday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper released a short statement following the news that Hugo Chávez had died as the result of an unspecified cancer at age 58.
After getting the mushy stuff out of the way with the rote sentiment - "I would like to offer my condolences to the people of Venezuela on the passing of President Chávez" - the tone shifted, however subtlty.
The statement goes on:
Canada looks forward to working with his successor and other leaders in the region to build a hemisphere that is more prosperous, secure and democratic.
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 has never been particularly shy about his opinion of Chávez, whose Bolivarianist-Socialist politics stand in stark contrast to his own arch neoconservativism. In a 2009 interview with The New York Times given during the Summit of the Americas, Harper noted in no uncertain terms that he was "a firm opponent" of Chávez's "hard-line ideology." (Though in the same interview, Harper also calls Chávez "a character...an affable and gregarious and open personality.")
Harper's "hope" for the Venezuelan people seems more than a little disingenuous. Especially because, as Nathan Vanderklippe at the Globe noted, the death of a petro-state President with a devoted disinterest in foreign capital could mean a diversion of investment dollars away from the Canadian tar sands, given the lower overhead of extracting crude from Venezuela's rich oil fields. Just a few weeks ago, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was scheduled to stop over in Venezuela to meet with opposition leaders as part of a whistle-stop tour of Latin America, but was rebuffed as Chávez had just returned from Cuba, where he was receiving treatment for his cancer.
Certainly, Harper has much to gain in Chávez's passing, and its potential for a Venezuelan political transformation not stratified along such staunch ideological battle-lines. You need only look to the transcript of PM's 2003 speech to parliament on intervention in Iraq to see how the PM really feels about stuff like global intervention and regime change.
Despite Chávez's spotty record as a ruler, it seems utterly tactless for Harper to backhandedly cheer the death of the populist President, and the Chavistas that supported him. Maybe Harper's just jealous that he never netted anywhere close to 60 per cent of the popular vote? Whatever the case, his statement smacks of self-interest. Call them qualified condolences.