Bush Sidesteps Chavez's Criticism During Tour

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 10, 2007; 2:00 PM

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 Chavez took care of the rest.

As President Bush visited Brazil and Uruguay on Friday as part of a six-day tour of Latin America, Chavez 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 Chavez's name at a news conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, despite a journalist's invitation to do so. But Chavez 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 Chavez," 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."

[On Saturday, at a news conference in Uruguay, Bush was asked if he was afraid to mention Chavez's name and to what degree the Venezuelan was a threat to U.S. interests in the hemisphere. Bush sidestepped both questions. "I've come to South America and Central America to advance a positive, constructive diplomacy that is being conducted by my government on behalf of the American people," Bush said.]

The Friday night rally was classic Chavez -- 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, Chavez 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 Chavez to spread the wealth widely in the region and extend his political reach throughout South and Central America. Before the rally, Chavez signed new economic agreements with Argentine President NĂ©stor Kirchner, from whom Chavez 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 Chavez the forum for his protest -- a move interpreted by many here as a symbolic political nod toward Venezuela and away from the United States.

"Chavez 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 Chavez 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. Chavez dismissed the U.S. aid as a "laughable sum" and suggested that Bush had ulterior motives.

"He's trying to confuse, defraud and divide," Chavez 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."

[Bush, in his Saturday news conference, again trumpeted the financial aid the United States has offered Latin American nations as well as his personal interest in the region. "I've been to Central and South America a lot since I've been the president because I fully understand a prosperous and peaceful neighborhood is in the interest of the United States of America," Bush said.]

Despite the fierce rhetoric, Chavez'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 Chavez, 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, Chavez headlined a demonstration in the city's largest soccer stadium.

Staff writer Bill Brubaker contributed to this story from Washington.

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