- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

BUENOS AIRES — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez will lead a mass protest tonight against President Bush’s Latin American tour, seeking to turn Mr. Bush’s self-described goodwill trip into a direct clash of personalities and ideologies.

Mr. Chavez will address 40 organizations and an estimated 40,000 people at a soccer stadium on the banks of the La Plata River — directly across from Uruguay, where Mr. Bush is scheduled to meet officials in the capital today.

Signs have been posted around Buenos Aires urging supporters to join “Comandante Chavez” in opposing Mr. Bush, whose free-trade message clashes with Mr. Chavez’s mix of socialist concepts and nationalistic speeches.

A slate of informal organizations, including Argentina’s labor groups and former movements of unemployed workers, have been spreading news of the rally through e-mail and placards.

“We are proud to stand in solidarity with our compatriot President Chavez against the imperialists,” said Mercedes Moronos of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, official sponsors of the rally, which has been approved by the Argentine government.

“Our message to Bush is, ‘Get out of other countries. Let people live in peace.’ ”

Uruguay is not the only stop on Mr. Bush’s tour where leftist groups hope to undercut the president’s message, which he described in a Colombian television interview as “nothing more than to say we want to be your friends, … that the United States cares deeply about the human condition.”

In Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, police clashed yesterday with more than 6,000 students, environmentalists and left-leaning Brazilians protesting the Bush visit and his push for an ethanol energy alliance with Brazil.

Protesting students also lobbed rocks and homemade explosives called potato bombs at riot police on a university campus in the Colombian capital of Bogota, where Mr. Bush is scheduled to visit Sunday as part of his five-nation tour of Latin America.

But the most important battle in the struggle for Latin American hearts and minds is that between Mr. Bush and Mr. Chavez, who offer dramatically different visions of how to lift millions of Latin Americans out of poverty.

“I strongly believe that government-run industry is inefficient and will lead to more poverty,” Mr. Bush said Wednesday in a swipe at his rival’s penchant for nationalizing Venezuelan companies.

In Venezuela, meanwhile, U.S. companies ConocoPhillips and Chevron Corp. agreed yesterday to meet a May 1 deadline decreed by Mr. Chavez to hand over some of their operations in the country to the state-owned oil company.

Mr. Chavez’s alternative development model enjoys vibrant support among poorer Argentines, but the Venezuelan’s presence in Argentina is causing consternation among critics of President Nestor Kirchner.

Tonight’s rally is expected to draw large numbers of supporters from leftist groups and trade unions that tend to support Mr. Kirchner, a moderate leftist who has deepened economic ties with Mr. Chavez while presiding over Argentina’s economic comeback from the devastating economic collapse of 2001-02. The two are scheduled to meet to discuss economic matters.

“The young people here who I see in the streets are lost,” said Juan Carlos, a 31-year-old cab driver. “Chavez gives them something to look up to and Kirchner wants Chavez to speak well of him.”

But opponents of Mr. Kirchner, who has not said whether he will seek re-election when his term ends in October, are already making an issue out of his relationship with his polarizing Venezuelan counterpart — a strategy that helped candidates defeat radicals in recent presidential elections in Mexico and Peru.

“We are deeply concerned with what has happened over the past few years concerning Chavez’ meddling in Argentina’s internal affairs,” said Alejandro Rodriguez, an adviser to centrist presidential candidate Roberto Lavagna, in an interview with Agence France-Presse.

Elisa Carrio, a popular socialist leader, said the rally is another example of the “fascist populism” of Mr. Kirchner and Mr. Chavez.

Sebastian Etchemendy, an Argentine political scientist at Stanford University in California, said the rally underscores Mr. Kirchner’s position in Latin America’s political landscape as “the more radical of the moderates and the more moderate of the radicals.”

“He is playing two cards — sending his base groups to the rally and offering the infrastructure for the event,” he said. “But Kirchner himself is not going. That shows his willingness to play both cards, getting benefits from his alliance with Chavez without directly confronting the U.S.”

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