OTTAWA - As he prepared to meet Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for the first time nearly four years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper drew an ideological line in the sand.

He called Chavez for how he saw him — the leader of an authoritarian petro state that he saw as a relic of the Cold War, one that was on the wrong side of sound economic theory and practice.

As Chavez, 58, finally succumbed Tuesday to the cancer that he had been fighting for nearly two years, Harper had kind words only for the Venezuelan people that the charismatic leftist had left behind.

The prime minister said he was offering his "condolences to the people of Venezuela," and that he looked forward "to working with (Chavez's) successor and other leaders in the region to build a hemisphere that is more prosperous, secure and democratic."

Harper said he hopes the death of Chavez brings a more promising future for the Venezuelan people.

"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 said in a statement Tuesday evening.

Harper clearly had no time for the Western Hemisphere's most persistent opponent of the free market economics of Canada and the United States.

Chavez led a leftist revival across Latin America that posed a direct challenge to U.S. influence in the region.

Harper himself has in the past pointedly challenged the world view of the influential Venezuelan leader.

As Harper met with a reporter with the Postmedia News Service at 24 Sussex in April 2009 on the eve of the Summit of the Americas, the prime minister made it clear in no uncertain terms that Chavez was his political polar opposite.

Harper was curious to meet Chavez in person, and he fully expected him to use the growing global financial security to trumpet the success of his socialist policies.

But the prime minister was having none of it.

"What we're seeing in the hemisphere is the time when the world has been moving towards a broad consensus on economic policy, you've had in the Americas — our own hemisphere — moving to cold war positioning —hard line capitalism and hard line socialism," Harper said.

"There are those that will use the global financial crisis to try and say capitalism is discredited. We need to go back to the old state models, as I said economic nationalism, class warfare, or political authoritarianism.

"We think it says the opposite."

Harper was willing to concede that the "turbo capitalism" that led to the recession needed to be reigned in.

But he wasn't interested in any lessons in economics from Chavez.

"There's nothing out here that says that running an authoritarian state on petro dollars is not going to get you very far in the long term," Harper said.

"(But) that's not why the Chinas, and Indias and South Koreas have been growing," the prime minister added.

"It actually shows, contrary to what the worst demagogues say that good relations with the United States are beneficial to you and beneficial across the spectrum."

In his 14 years in power, Chavez used his country's lucrative oil wealth on social programs such as state-run food markets, new public housing, free health clinics and education programs.

Poverty declined during Chavez's presidency amid a historic boom in oil earnings, but critics said he failed to use the windfall of hundreds of billions of dollars to develop the country's economy.

Since them, Venezuela's economy has sputtered as the output of its state-controlled oil company declined.

In December, two months after he won re-election, Chavez boarded a plane for Cuba for treatment of his cancer.

He blew a kiss to his country, and was never seen again in public.

The Harper government, meanwhile, was keen to engage with Venezuela, and forge economic links, at what it viewed as a critical turning point in history.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was to have travelled to Venezuela two weeks ago but the trip was abruptly cancelled because Chavez made an unexpected homecoming from Cuba.

Baird had been scheduled to hold meetings with government counterparts and other opposition representatives as part of a six-country tour of Latin America.

The Venezuelans found the atmosphere surrounding Chavez's return to be too politically charged to host Baird.

The day before the news broke of Chavez's departure from a Cuban hospital, Baird told The Canadian Press that he wanted to hold talks on increasing opportunities for Canadian businesses in Venezuela.

Baird said he had a full business agenda planned in Venezuela, but that "obviously we want to promote democracy, and we want to promote political freedoms."

Baird also said he didn't see "eye to eye" with the Venezuelans on their growing relations with Iran, a country Canada severed relations with last year and that faces United Nations sanctions over its nuclear ambitions.

Baird also said he planned to meet opposition figures in Venezuela — something that would have landed him squarely in the middle of the uncertainty unfolding about the whether Chavez would be able to carry on, or have to be replaced.

Almost four years ago, Harper himself said he was curious about meeting Chavez. In the end, Chavez made some hay at the 2009 Summit of the Americas, but Harper came out of the meeting pleased.

He pushed Canada's trade agenda with Latin America and the Caribbean.

The day before he departed for Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, however, Harper knew his task wouldn't be as straightforward as he would have liked.

He was expecting opposition from "countries that are opposed to basically sound economic policies, want to go back to Cold War socialism, countries that want to turn back the clock on the democratic progress that's been made in the hemisphere."

Seated at a table of a rear sitting room of his official residence, Harper said: "There's no doubt that when you talk about basic values, even basic economic values you've got clearly some leaders who are not on the same page."

On Tuesday night it seemed Harper clearly relished the chance to turn that page.

— with files from the Associated Press.

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  • June 30, 2011

    Chavez says on television from Cuba that he had a cancerous tumor removed from his pelvic region. He later says the tumor extracted was the size of a baseball. <em>Caption: In this photo downloaded from the state media Cubadebate web site, Cuba's Fidel Castro, left, and his brother Cuba's President Raul Castro, right, pose for a photo with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in his hospital room in Havana, Cuba, Friday June 17, 2011. (AP Photo//Cubadebate)</em>

  • July 4, 2011

    Chavez returns to Venezuela, but later travels to Cuba periodically for chemotherapy and medical tests. <em>Caption: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez gestures after a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)</em>

  • Sept. 23, 2011

    Chavez says he completed chemotherapy and calls the treatment successful. Says later that tests show no reappearance of cancer cells. <em>Caption: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez greets supporters from a plane as he arrives to La Fria, Venezuela, Thursday Oct. 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)</em>

  • Feb. 21, 2012

    Chavez says his doctors found a new lesion in the same place where the tumor was previously removed, and announces plans to return to Cuba for surgery. <em>Caption: An altar boy prays next to an image of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez during mass supporting him in Managua, Nicaragua, Thursday March, 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)</em>

  • Feb. 26, 2012

    Chavez undergoes operation that removes the tumor from the same location in his pelvic region. Says later that follow-up tests showed the tumor was "recurrence of the initially diagnosed cancer." <em>Caption: A supporter of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez holds up a sign that reads in Spanish "Pray for Chavez" during an event event honoring Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at the Teresa Carreno theater in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)</em>

  • March 24, 2012

    Chavez travels to Cuba to begin radiation therapy. <em>Caption: In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, center, and his daughter Rosa Virginia, left, review the honor guard prior to their departure to Havana, at the Simon Bolivar airport in Maiquetia, Venezuela, Saturday March 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Miraflores Press Office/Francisco Batista)</em>

  • April 14, 2012

    Chavez travels to Cuba for second round of radiation treatment. <em>Caption: In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Cuba’s Vice President Jose Ramon Machado, left, receives Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, center, and his daughter Rosa Virginia, right, upon their arrival at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, Saturday April 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Miraflores Press Office)</em>

  • April 26, 2012

    Chavez returns to Venezuela following cancer treatment in Cuba, saying his latest round of therapy was successful. <em>Caption: In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, right, speaks with members of his staff including Vice President Elias Jaua, left, upon his arrival to the airport in Maiquetia near Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, April 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Miraflores Press Office, Efrain Gonzalez)</em>

  • July 9, 2012

    Chavez says at a news conference that tests show he is "totally free" of cancer. <em>Caption: In this July 5, 2012 file photo, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez waves during a parade marking Independence Day in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)</em>

  • Oct. 7, 2012

    Chavez wins re-election to another six-year term, beating challenger Henrique Capriles. <em>Caption: Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez greets officials after a ceremony declaring him winner of Sunday's presidential elections at the Electoral Council in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)</em>

  • Nov. 27, 2012

    Chavez announces he will travel to Cuba for more medical treatment. He says doctors have recommended he "begin special treatment consisting of various sessions of hyperbaric oxygenation." <em>Caption: In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez holds a sword that once belonged to independence hero Simon Bolivar at a meeting with his Cabinet, at Miraflores Presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Dec 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Miraflores Press Office, Marcelo Garcia)</em>

  • Dec. 9, 2012

    Chavez announces that cancerous tumor reappeared and that he must travel to Cuba for another operation. He says the surgery could be complicated and that if he is unable to stay on as president, Vice President Nicolas Maduro should run in an election to take his place. <em>Caption: Backdropped by a portrait of independence hero Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez talks during a press conference at the Miraflores palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)</em>

  • Dec. 10, 2012

    Chavez travels to Cuba and undergoes surgery the next day. <em>Caption: In this Dec. 10, 2012 file photo released by Cuba's state newspaper Granma, Cuba's President Raul Castro, right, receives Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at the Jose Marti International airport in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Granma, File)</em>

  • Jan. 10, 1013

    Chavez misses his scheduled swearing-in ceremony, which was indefinitely postponed by lawmakers. Supporters stage symbolic inauguration in the streets of Caracas, swearing themselves in in their leader's place. <em>Caption: In this Jan. 10, 2013 file photo, supporters of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez carry a life-size cut out image of him during a symbolic inauguration ceremony for Chavez, who was in Cuba for cancer treatment at the time, in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)</em>

  • Jan. 20, 2013

    Maduro says he is optimistic that Chavez will return to Venezuela "sooner rather than later." <em>Caption: In this Jan. 21, 2013 file photo, Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro listens a speech by Luisa Estella Morales, president of Supreme Court, during a special session marking the start of the judicial year in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano, File)</em>

  • Jan. 22, 2013

    Information Minister Ernesto Villegas says no date has been established for Chavez's return. <em>Caption: In this photo released by Miraflores Press Office, Venezuela's Communications Minister Ernesto Villegas speaks during news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Francisco Batista, Miraflores Press Office)</em>

  • Feb. 13, 2013

    Maduro says Chavez is undergoing "extremely complex and tough" treatments. <em>Caption: Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro holds up a letter that he said it was sent by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez to his supporters during a demonstration commemorating the anniversary of a failed coup attempt led by Chavez in 1992, in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, Feb. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)</em>

  • Feb. 15, 2013

    Government shows first photos of Chavez in more than two months, says he is breathing through a tracheal tube. <em>Caption: In this photo released Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 by Miraflores Presidential Press Office, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, center, poses for a photo with his daughters, Maria Gabriela, left, and Rosa Virginia as he holds a copy of Cuba's state newspaper Granma at an unknown location in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Miraflores Presidential Press Office)</em>

  • March 5, 2013

    Vice President Nicolas Maduro announces Chavez has died. <em>FILE - In this April 13, 2010 file photo, members of the National Revolutionary Militia, also called Bolivarian militias, hold up their guns and a painting of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez at an event marking the 9th anniversary of Chavez's return to power after a failed 2002 coup, in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuela's Vice President Nicolas Maduro announced on Tuesday, March 5, 2013 that Chavez has died. Chavez, 58, was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File)</em>