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THE WORLD

Thousands gather to hear Chavez excoriate Bush

The Venezuelan leader packs a stadium in Argentina to scoff at the U.S. president's South American agenda.

March 10, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell and Andres D'Alessandro | Times Staff Writers

BUENOS AIRES — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Friday denounced President Bush's swing through Latin America as an "imperial" excursion, mocking the president and cementing the impression of the White House trip as a battle between the two hemispheric rivals.

"Bush today is a political cadaver," Chavez, mixing humor, sarcasm and bombast in his characteristic style, told tens of thousands of admirers at a soccer stadium decorated with anti-Bush banners and the ubiquitous image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary. "He doesn't even smell of sulfur anymore. He no longer has that virtue."

The Venezuelan leader's two-hour peroration came shortly after Air Force One touched down in neighboring Uruguay, just 40 miles across the muddy Rio de la Plata, sometimes called the River Plate in English.

"If you truly want social justice in the world, order the immediate withdrawal of the troops from Iraq," Chavez scolded Bush, scoffing at the president's recently declared commitment to reverse inequality in Latin America. "Use that gigantic [military] budget for investments in food and health."

The charismatic, media-savvy Chavez seized upon the presence of Bush, who is widely unpopular in South America, as an opportunity not to be missed. Chavez's self-proclaimed status as a target of "the empire" has won him many admirers in the resurgent left, and Bush's "anti-Chavez" tour, as some here have called it, provided fresh rhetorical ammunition.

"The visit of Bush forms part of a new advance of imperialism," said Chavez, who earlier in the day assailed the president's visit to Brazil and its focus on vegetable-based alternative fuels such as ethanol.

"We are going to produce food for the vehicles of ... the North -- what a ridiculous thing!" Chavez said of the U.S.-Brazilian biofuels partnership announced during the Bush stop in Brazil.

"They want to substitute the production of foodstuffs to sustain the 'American Way of Life,' " Chavez added.

"They're looking for countries with great agricultural expanses and water," he said.

Bush's focus on biofuels is viewed by many in Latin America as an effort to counter Chavez and his petro-diplomacy. Chavez has used Venezuela's surging oil revenue to aid allies in the region, providing cheap gasoline, medical assistance, education funds and other help.

What Chavez did Friday was mount a reprise of his effective repudiation of Bush's last visit to South America, at a November 2005 hemispheric economic summit in the Argentine city of Mar del Plata.

Chavez convened tens of thousands of admirers at an "anti-summit" rally and march in Mar del Plata, and Bush's plans for a new free-trade zone were eventually defeated.

This time, neither Argentina nor Venezuela is on the Bush agenda. But Chavez surely is, even if U.S. authorities insist the trip has nothing to do with the Venezuelan president.

Chavez's close ally, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, apparently encouraged him to stage his rally here -- more evidence that Kirchner, who has generally refrained from direct attacks on Washington, is firmly in the camp of the aid-dispensing Venezuelan. Several television stations here carried the Chavez address live.

Argentina, rebounding from a 2001-02 economic meltdown, has been one of Chavez's major aid beneficiaries. Venezuela has purchased more than $3 billion in Argentine bonds and recently chipped in more than $100 million to rescue a failing dairy concern.

"In Argentina's most difficult moments, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was present," Kirchner told reporters, using Venezuela's formal name.

The White House has sought to describe the Bush visit as a kind of goodwill tour, a make-up-and-hug mission after years of U.S. focus on the Middle East. Bush advisors have also strived to display a different face of U.S. policy, with a focus on issues such as healthcare, poverty and indigenous rights -- the kinds of concerns Chavez has championed.

But administration officials have been unable to jettison the widespread impression in South America that Bush's five-country, six-day visit through the region is largely aimed at neutralizing one man: Chavez, the acolyte of Fidel Castro who has emerged as Bush's primary nemesis in Latin America.

Bush has avoided the explosive Chavez topic since arriving in Brazil on Thursday.

Chavez, who has referred to Bush as "the devil" and "Mr. Danger," this time repeatedly referred to him as el caballerito -- "the little gentleman."

He labeled Bush "the president with the lowest intellectual level in the history of the United States."

Polls have shown that U.S. policy is regularly more unpopular in Argentina than anywhere else on the continent.

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