Chávez Waxes Anti-Bush at Rally

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the leader of a mothers organization wave to supporters.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the leader of a mothers organization wave to supporters. (By Daniel Luna -- Associated Press)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 10, 2007

BUENOS AIRES, March 9 -- Argentina provided the microphone, the stadium and thousands of fired-up spectators in the mood to hear some thunderous, fist-pumping, anti-American sloganeering. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez took care of the rest.

As President Bush visited Brazil and Uruguay on Friday as part of a six-day tour of Latin America, Chávez tried to steal his thunder by staging an anti-Bush rally in a soccer stadium filled with Venezuelan flags, Che Guevara banners and signs saying: "Bush Get Out!"

U.S. officials have repeatedly dismissed the idea that Bush's tour is an attempt to counter Venezuela's influence in the region. On Friday, Bush declined to speak Chávez's name at a news conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, despite a journalist's invitation to do so. But Chávez had no such reservations, attaching a long list of derogatory adjectives to Bush's name at every opportunity.

"Bush seemed like he had a heart attack when he heard the name of Chávez," said the Venezuelan president, who told the crowd of about 30,000 that he watched Bush's news conference on television. "He lowered his head, stuttered a couple of times and responded to something else."

The rally was classic Chávez -- voluble and confrontational, an attempt to cast the two presidents' dueling tours as an open battle for Latin America's soul.

Speaking for more than two hours, Chávez repeated many of the themes he regularly extols: regional unification, the importance of rejecting the "imperial" influence of the United States, the ills of free-market economics. He accused the United States of coveting the region's natural resources, including Venezuela's ample oil reserves.

Those reserves have allowed Chávez to spread the wealth widely in the region and extend his political reach throughout South and Central America. Before the rally, Chávez signed new economic agreements with Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, from whom Chávez has purchased more than $3 billion in bonds and to whom he recently provided cash to help keep a struggling state-run dairy company afloat. Kirchner, who did not attend the rally, provided Chávez the forum for his protest -- a move interpreted by many here as a symbolic political nod toward Venezuela and away from the United States.

"Chávez is making important steps to fight poverty, improve health care and education, and I hope his influence spreads even more," said Adriana Iacono, 42, a psychologist attending the stadium rally.

During his tour, Bush has broadened the usual discourse of trade and security issues to try to send a message, he has said, that "we care." But Chávez ridiculed Bush's recently announced plans for new health-care and poverty-relief programs throughout Latin America, which are part of a $1.47 billion U.S. budget request for all of Latin America next year. Chávez dismissed the U.S. aid as a "laughable sum" and suggested that Bush had ulterior motives.

"He's trying to confuse, defraud and divide," Chávez told reporters before the rally. "We must break the chains of imperialism. There won't be any more wolves dressed in sheep's clothing, nor these manipulative discourses, nor these handouts like Bush is offering now that he has discovered there are poor people in Latin America."

Despite the fierce rhetoric, Chávez's rally was mostly peaceful. But demonstrators earlier in the day threw rocks at police in riot gear and lighted fires during a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires. Other minor street protests connected to Bush's visit were reported Friday in Uruguay, Brazil and Colombia.

For Chávez, stadium rallies are becoming a tradition whenever Bush sets foot in the region. In 2005, when Bush visited Argentina for the Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Chávez headlined a demonstration in the city's largest soccer stadium.

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