President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has upstaged George Bush's Latin American tour in a show of political theatre that this weekend saw insults hurled across the River Plate.
The socialist firebrand turned a rally in Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, into a platform to assail the US President as he flew into neighbouring Uruguay, 30 miles away, for the second leg of his five-nation tour.
Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, left, and Bolivia's President Evo Morales, cheer to supporters while parading through the streets of El Alto, Bolivia, Sunday, March 11, 2007. While U.S. President George W. Bush travels to friendly Latin American nations to shore up relations and highlight U.S. aid to the region, Chavez appears intent on spoiling the show on his parallel trip, saying at every turn that Venezuela is doing more to help the region. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
'The little imperial gentleman from the north must be across the river by now. Let's send him a big shout: Gringo go home,' Chavez told thousands of people gathered at a football stadium on Friday night, prompting roars of 'Gringo go home'.
At a press conference yesterday Bush refused to name Chavez or hit back, but the calculated show of restraint could not conceal that he was engaged in a duel with his Venezuelan nemesis.
The White House has said the six-day tour, which started in Brazil and will stop off at Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, was to show the US cared about the region's crippling poverty. But most analysts agreed it was an effort to claw back influence in a region that has slipped Washington's leash since the election of several left-wing governments, with Chavez the most radical and vocal member of the 'pink tide'.
'We don't even need to make an effort to sabotage [Bush's] tour,' Chavez told the crowd. 'He's a political cadaver. He exhales the smell of the political dead and he will soon be cosmic dust that will disappear from the stage.'
The Venezuelan leader, who was recently elected to another six-year term, exulted that at home and abroad the man he often calls 'the devil' is a beleaguered figure with just two years left in office.
Chavez continued to upstage Bush as the Venezuelan leader arrived in Bolivia yesterday, saying his country was doing more to help the region than the USA. Appearing with Bolivian President Evo Morales, Chavez said South America needed a united armed forces before referring to his actions in Buenos Aires as a protest against 'the presence in these South American lands of the head of the empire'.
On the Air Force One flight to Uruguay a White House spokesman expressed irritation that the media was focusing on Chavez, whom he avoided naming. Asked about the Buenos Aires rally, he replied: 'I don't know if you can ignore it, but it is what it is.'
The Chile-based Latinobarometro - an annual survey of public opinion in Latin America - last year found Chavez was as unpopular as Bush, with 39 per cent having a bad opinion about both. 'Most unattractive has been their "you're with us or against us" attitude, making them polarising figures in a continent desperately in need of cooperation,' said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
But an outsized personality and oil-funded treasury have given the former army paratrooper the clout to project his brand of socialism and Bush-baiting.
'Chavez has framed the issue [as if he is] a gritty version of Jeanne d'Arc, defending his beloved Latin America,' said Larry Birns, of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Bush, advised not to get into a war of words that would play into his opponent's hands, stuck to his script. He had come to help and there was more that united than divided him and his hosts: co-operation with Brazil over green fuel; a possible trade deal with Uruguay; continued aid to Colombia and Guatemala; soothing noises about a deal over Mexican immigrants. 'This trip is to remind people of the ties that bind us, and the importance of this region for the future of the United States. And I'm real glad to be here.'
In Sao Paulo, the President shook a ganya, a silver, cylinder-shaped musical instrument, while his wife Laura and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice danced a samba with a group of Brazilian teenagers. Yet the local media remained unimpressed and said Bush remained ill at ease with the region.
That a US President should be so on the defensive in his back yard is a turnaround all the more dramatic, since the former governor of Texas had promised to make the region his foreign policy priority. However, the 9/11 attacks diverted his attention and the following year he angered many by seeming to support a bungled coup attempt against the Venezuelan President.
The elections of a wave of left-wing governments exposed disenchantment with the market-friendly, American-backed economic policies that had left most Latin Americans still mired in poverty. The Iraq war has only compounded resentment with Washington.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007