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Last Updated: Monday, 15 May 2006, 17:53 GMT 18:53 UK
Fighting US imperialism at City Hall
By Nathalie Malinarich
BBC News website

President Hugo Chavez (right) with London Mayor Ken Livingstone
A diverse crowd turned out for the Venezuelan leader's visit

It was the second day of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's private visit to London, and his supporters were there outside City Hall to make sure he felt welcome.

Keenly awaiting his arrival after a meeting with trades unions, men and women of different nationalities mingled with the Thameside lunchtime crowd.

They handed out placards saying "London welcomes President Chavez" to bemused tourists trying to take pictures of Tower Bridge.

"I wanted to see him in the flesh - I've only ever seen him on TV," said one woman.

"He's doing a very good job," her friend, a Chilean living in London, added. "He confronts US imperialism."

And indeed, Mr Chavez's news conference with Mayor Ken Livingstone seemed to be all about fighting "American imperialism". Even talk about tackling traffic congestion somehow ended in a dig at the "American way of life".

His praise for the sun-lit City Hall contrasted with remarks about New York's twin towers, which he said "consumed more electricity than several African countries".

'Offence'

A skilled orator who is known for his marathon TV speeches, Mr Chavez becomes even more animated when he starts talking about the Bush administration.

So, when a journalist from the BBC's Spanish-American service asked him whether he was behaving a bit like his arch-enemy George W Bush by taking a "you're with us or against us" attitude, his pause electrified the audience.

I leave my regards to the Queen... I leave my regards to the prime minister
President Hugo Chavez

As the guests - many from the UK groups which have enthusiastically expressed their support for him - held their breath, Mr Chavez looked truly aghast.

"It is the first time I have been offended this way in public - to be compared to the biggest perpetrator of genocide the world has known," he said in a low voice.

"To be compared to an assassin, someone who has committed genocide, an immoral man who should be put in jail by an international court. What exactly are these attitudes?

"Have we invaded any country?" he asked to great applause from the guests.

He said Cuban leader Fidel Castro had once likened him to the US president because he could make phone calls from an aeroplane, and he had made clear his displeasure about it.

Political tool?

Mr Chavez also seemed extremely unhappy to be asked why he was not meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mr Chavez and Mr Livingstone give a press conference at City Hall
Mr Chavez liked City Hall but was less keen on journalists' questions
That, he claimed in no uncertain terms, was a "very silly question".

It was, Mr Chavez explained, a private visit. And, if anyone did not know what that meant, they should look it up in a protocol manual.

"I leave my regards to the Queen. I'll never forget my meeting with her [during a visit to the UK in 2001]. I leave my regards to the prime minister," he said.

But, he explained, he was in London to say a big thank you to all the friends and supporters of Venezuela, and to talk business.

Would he strike a deal with Mayor Livingstone - as he has done with a number of US cities - to provide cheap heating oil for the UK capital's poorest residents?

Mr Livingstone was somewhat evasive, though Mr Chavez certainly seemed keen on the idea.

But the president was less keen on the suggestion that he used oil - Venezuela has some of the biggest reserves in the world - as a political tool.

"Now Venezuela is being accused of being an imperialist country... now there is talk of an imperialist Chavez who uses petrol to dominate other nations. That is an idea being spread around the world by Washington... it is absurd," he said.


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