Venezuelan President promises fuel to the needy and proclaims 'final days of the North American empire' before visit to Britain today
Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez arrives in London today with an extraordinary promise to offer cut-rate heating oil for needy families in Europe, modelled on a similar campaign in the US which has been seen partly as a bid to embarrass President George Bush.
Last night Chavez also issued a taunting obituary for the 'American empire' on the eve of a visit where he will be shunned by Downing Street but welcomed by London Mayor Ken Livingststone.
Chavez said in Vienna yesterday that the 'final hours of the North American empire have arrived ... Now we have to say to the empire: "We're not afraid of you. You're a paper tiger."'
Referring to his supply of heating to poor American families last winter, Chavez told a meeting of political supporters: 'I'd like to do the same here in Europe.'
He was addressing an 'alternative summit' held alongside a three-day meeting of leaders from the European Union, Latin America and the Caribbean in the Austrian capital. 'I want to humbly offer support to the poorest people who do not have resources for central heating in winter and make sure that support arrives,' he said.
Though he said that Venezuela has two refineries in Germany and one in Britain, he did not provide further details about how the supply scheme would work. But he said Venezuelan ambassadors in Europe were looking into the matter. 'You Europeans can help us greatly. Your European social networks can make sure the support arrives where it should,' Chavez told the conference.
This past winter, Venezuela delivered cut-rate oil to low-income Americans through Citgo, the Houston-based subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company.
Chavez appealed to the audience to unite and promote social change. For example, he said, more business should be steered toward smaller companies to the benefit of labourers in poorer regions, and that doing so would cut out intermediaries. 'We have to unite all possible movements, otherwise the world is not going to change,' he said.
Chavez, with a growing regional profile built on a mix of populist rhetoric and his country's oil wealth, has been publicly feuding with Bush, whom he has likened to Adolf Hitler - with Tony Blair dismissed as 'the main ally of Hitler.'
While Downing Street has pointedly emphasised that Chavez's visit to Britain is private, with no official contacts planned, London's mayor yesterday defended his decision to host a luncheon in honour of the Venezuelan leader.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, Livingstone said that Chavez had been responsible for significant social reforms and called him 'the best news out of Latin America in many years.'
Dismissing human rights groups' concerns about Venezuela's treatment of political opponents, Livingstone said: 'He's won 10 elections for his party in the last decade and he's pushed through a whole programme of social reform.
'Venezuela was like a lot of those old Latin American countries - a small elite of super-rich families who basically stole the national resources. He's now driven a new economic order through, you've got for the first time healthcare for poor people, illiteracy has been eradicated.'
Chavez is scheduled to begin his visit with an address on his social reforms and a meeting with supporters at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London today. Tomorrow, he will meet left-wing Labour MPs and trade union officials and hold a joint news conference with Livingstone at City Hall.
Tomorrow evening, Chavez is due to give a lecture at Canning House, an institution that works to strengthen commercial and cultural ties between Britain and Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries. On Tuesday, the final day of the visit, the Venezuelan leader is due to open a museum and speak at Banqueting House in Whitehall.
Livingstone said that one reason he was keen to welcome Chavez was because of the potential benefit for the capital from a strong financial and economic relationship with Venezuela.
'The reason he [Chavez] wants to come to London is because clearly, as the Latin American economies really begin to emerge from the American shadow and grow, they don't want all their eggs in the Washington basket,' Livingstone contended. 'They're looking for allies in Europe and Asia and it's very much in London's interests that as Venezuela's companies go, they should see London as a natural home every bit as much as Madrid.'
The mood surrounding Chavez's two-day trip contrasts sharply with the warm welcome he received from Blair during an official London visit five years ago.
Relations with the Venezuelan leader have frayed badly as Chavez has drawn steadily closer to Fidel Castro's Cuba and tried to galvanise South American opposition to US policies.
Earlier this year, Blair declared in the Commons that Venezuela 'should abide by the rules of the international community,' adding that it would help further if Cuba became a 'functioning democracy.'
Chavez reacted to the remarks, and denounced Blair as a 'pawn of imperialism.'
The Venezuelan leader then further angered Downing Street by declaring that the Falkland Islands rightly belonged to Argentina. 'Tony Blair, you have no moral right to tell anyone to respect international laws, as you have no respect for them, aligning yourself with Mr Danger [Bush] and trampling on the people of Iraq,' he added. 'Do you think we still live in the times of the British empire?'
Venezuela's embassy in London has played down the reluctance of Blair to take any part in the Chavez visit, issuing a statement last week pointing out that he had already had an official welcome during his 2001 trip to London.