- The Washington Times - Monday, November 7, 2005

SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia

Venezuelan opposition parties charge that President Hugo Chavez used government funds to help pay for mass protests in Mar del Plata, Argentina, which resulted in violence during Friday’s meeting of heads of state of the Americas.

“The Venezuelan government not only took great trouble in organizing, but also paid the costs for the events of the alternative summit in Mar del Plata to serve as a stage for President Chavez and his radical attacks against what he defines as ‘imperialism,’” said lawmaker Carlos Berrizbeitia.

The representative of the center-right Venezuelan Project party said he has documents proving that a mass rally where Mr. Chavez spoke for two hours, calling on supporters to “bury capitalism and United States imperialism,” was sponsored with official funds.

Some of the protesters later rampaged through the streets of the seaside resort, torching banks and businesses in efforts to break through police cordons around the official conference where President Bush pushed for a hemispheric free-trade zone.

Mr. Bush’s proposal was opposed by Venezuela, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. Domestic opponents of Mr. Chavez say the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry spent more than $2.5 million on Mr. Chavez’s trip and the stadium rally in Mar del Plata. Mr. Berrizbeitia said $100,000 went to pay Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona to appear on the podium.

Maradona has been active in leftist politics since he went to a detoxification clinic in Cuba some years ago to cure a cocaine addiction.

The U.S. State Department, as well as Latin American political leaders and security officials, often accuse the Venezuelan president of supporting violent movements throughout the region that have toppled successive governments in Ecuador and Bolivia and threaten stability of Colombia and other countries.

Mr. Chavez was joined at Mar del Plata by Bolivia’s radical leader, Evo Morales, whose party, the Movement to Socialism (MAS), has violently ousted two Bolivian presidents since 2003.

The group of 1,000 to 2,000 protesters called “quebrancho,” who rioted Friday, is said to be an offshoot of the “piqueteros” — a larger protest movement in Argentina.

Mario Baizan, a former chief of international investigations with Argentina’s Interior Ministry, said several hundred piqueteros have recently undergone military training in Venezuela.

Reports in the Argentina newspaper El Clarin said a group of piqueteros went to Venezuela to join a 30,000-member militia formed by Mr. Chavez to guard against a U.S. invasion.

At the Mar del Plata protests, Mr. Chavez warned that any U.S. intervention in Venezuela would lead to a “hundred-years war” in the region.

Mr. Berrizbeitia also said two planeloads of personnel who accompanied Mr. Chavez to Mar del Plata included a group of Cubans who served as a special security team for the rally, as well as doctors, cooks and a camera crew that transmitted the event live on Venezuelan state television.

He complained that the money would have been better spent to help Venezuela’s poor.

“It is regrettable that Venezuelan money should be squandered in giving our country a terrible image abroad, because Chavez stood before the world as an agitator with the terrible violent events which occurred in Mar del Plata following his incendiary discourse.”

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