Mon, May 22, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Venezuela's President Chavez wins hearts and minds in London

Enthusiasm for Hugo Chavez was not simply limited to the politically committed -- captains of industry were there to cheer on the Latin American leader too

By Hugh O'Shaughnessy  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Few visitors who come to London without being able to speak English can have had such an effect on such a great variety of people as President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has just had here.

In the course of the hectic 48 hours that his presidential Airbus was on the ground, the leader of one of the world's biggest oil producers threw himself into one public meeting after the other and fitted in interviews for newspapers, radio and television and consultations with political leaders and captains of industry.

The effect he had on his hearers was remarkable, despite the fact that most had to understand him through the simultaneous translation they received through the little hand-held wirelesses they were provided with at the different venues.

Chavez's excursions into English were limited to "Good afternoon" and "I love you" a couple of times. He started with a meeting in the workaday surrounding of Camden Town Hall in north London which Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, chaired for him on May14 with hundreds of politically committed people, many of them young and many of them Latin American.

He continued in the baroque grandeur of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall near the Houses of Parliament the following day with the cream of British business with connections to the region. His long, forceful speeches were received with surprise and the enthusiasm.

When he took off on May16 for Algeria and Libya, the big producers of oil and gas in North Africa, those who had heard him had much to think about.

His stay to Britain, billed as private, came after a visit to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican and to Vienna where the president of the EU was hosting one of the periodical summit meetings of Caribbean, European and Latin American heads of state.

This visit to London, unlike a previous one however, did not include a call on Queen Elizabeth II or British Prime Minister Tony Blair, though he conveyed his respectful greeting to them. It could hardly have been otherwise since earlier this year Blair had been scathing about the Venezuelan's friendship with Cuban President Fidel Castro when he replied to a question put to him in the House of Commons by one of the growing number of members of parliament who are Chavez's British supporters.

The messages Chavez delivered at Camden and Whitehall which lasted three-and-a-half hours and two hours respectively were unashamedly critical of neo-liberal ideas espoused by the government of the US and such bodies as the World Bank and the IMF.

He was particularly critical of US President George W. Bush, Blair's main ally, whom he accuses of backing the violent opposition in Venezuela and of supporting those in the US who want to finish with him and his government by any method, legal or illegal.

Though the two countries are mutually dependent on the flow of 1,500,000 barrels of crude oil which Venezuela supplies every day to the US, relations are strained, a point which was underlined by Washington as it announced a ban on the supply of US arms to Chavez while he was in London.

The Venezuelan leader went on to launch a defense of the sort of democratic socialism practiced in his country where, despite the success of a group of right wingers who overthrew him for 48 hours and proclaimed a dictatorship in 2002. In a series of clean election victories he has demonstrated his high levels of support among the majority who are sunk in poverty in an oil-rich country and who are just beginning to benefit from his massive new spending on social programs.

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