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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 November 2006, 14:21 GMT
Mayor's 'Kenezuelan' PR disaster
by Tim Donovan
BBC London Politics Editor

Hugo Chavez and Ken Livingstone
President Chavez was a guest of the mayor in May
Ken Livingstone stood in the foyer of Havana's Hotel Nacional on Monday morning betraying no signs of the public relations disaster on his hands.

He was seen laughing and joking with his team of four officials as he waited to be taken on a tour of Havana's beautiful old quarter.

But he heard late the previous night that his Venezuelan plans had gone up in smoke.

An advance party of the mayor's officials, sent to Venezuela's capital Caracas to finalise arrangements, found itself unable to pin Venezuelan officials down to any kind of itinerary.

Worst of all President Hugo Chavez - in the middle of a frenetic presidential election campaign - could not make much time in his diary after all to see "his new best friend" from London.

Time constraints

The mayor's officials talked of "time constraints". In fact, it seemed not much more than a handshake and a brief meeting was being offered. It's possible that not even that would be arranged for sure.

One of the problems was President Chavez and his officials have been away at a conference in Uruguay.

Mr Livingstone played host to Chavez when he visited London earlier this year and hoped to be feted in similar style.

But it rapidly became clear that was not possible.

Just a couple of days before, the mayor had been buzzing with the news that he had been invited to address the Venezuelan National Assembly.

Ken Livingstone watches a cricket match in Cuba
The mayor said the Cuba trip had been useful

"I imagine there will be some references to the US imperialism," he joked with one official.

Instead he is now facing the prospect of searching questions from the London Assembly about a globe-trotting escape which has ended - according to his critics - in extreme embarrassment.

The advance briefing from the mayor's office had been that the trip would see a major agreement signed.

Subsidised Venezuelan oil would be given to London, not directly, but through a scheme which targeted financial help for London's poor - most likely in the form of assistance with bus and Tube fares.

Chaotic cities

In return, London would share its expertise on transport and waste and planning with officials from one of the most chaotic cities on the planet.

But with President Chavez's political opponents beginning to sniff an opportunity, it may suddenly have dawned that offering cheap oil to one of the richest, developed and industrialised countries in the world might not go down well in the middle of an election campaign in the "teeming barrios" of Caracas, where his political fate will be decided.

The collapse of the "Kenezuela" trip follows controversy about the first leg of this Latin American tour, a visit to Cuba which he had done nothing to publicise beforehand.

When BBC London heard he was staying in the capital Havana for longer than he had planned to stay in Caracas, the mayor found himself in a position almost impossible to defend.

Fuss or publicity

On the one hand, he said an invitation by Lord Moynihan - chair of the British Olympic Association - to attend a sports congress was important to accept and he would be meeting Cuban sports officials.

On the other, he was, he said, only stopping over on the way to a much bigger deal and it was not a journey or trip warranting much fuss or publicity.

Geographically, he said, "it was like getting off a couple of Tube stops early" from the final destination.

Now, he's left with an equally difficult task of suddenly talking up a Cuban visit that a few days ago he was playing down.

Cost of a foreign affair

Talks with government officials "have been useful", he said, and plans for a Cuban festival in London "even bigger and better".

With his political opponents, such at the Conservatives and Lib Dems on the London Assembly, making hay, accusing Livingstone of junketing, the mayor has been left on the back foot.

And it is only likely to get worse when the London Assembly probes further the purpose and the cost of a foreign affair which has soured so quickly.

A little bit desperately, the Mayor's press officials pointed journalists towards a statement of the Venezuelan government on Tuesday which said that the London "oil deal" would definitely still go ahead.

It is likely the Venezuelan officials will now come to London to announce it.

Without, presumably, stopping off in Cuba on the way.


SEE ALSO
Chavez to ignore Blair on UK trip
14 May 06 |  Americas

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