- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007

BUENOS AIRES — Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said yesterday that President Bush’s Latin American tour was nothing more than an attempt to improve America’s image, dismissing pledges of U.S. aid as a cynical attempt to “confuse” the region.

Mr. Chavez, who complained last week that Mr. Bush’s tour was meant to divide Latin America and isolate his leftist government, launched a counter-tour of his own, arriving late Thursday in Buenos Aires. He said the U.S. leader only recently “has discovered poverty” in the region.

“I believe the chief objective of the Bush trip is to try to scrub clean the face of the [U.S.] empire in Latin America. But it’s too late,” Mr. Chavez said of recent Bush pledges of aid. “It seems he’s just now discovered that poverty exists in the region.”

In an interview with Argentine state television Channel 7, Mr. Chavez promised his scheduled soccer-stadium rally in Buenos Aires “will be confrontational. I believe you have to point out the contrasts. If he says ‘Yes,’ we say, ‘No!’ ”

Just as Mr. Chavez whips up cries of “Bush, Go Home!” at the rally, Mr. Bush is expected to arrive in Uruguay, the second stop on his tour, about 40 miles across the River Plate from Argentina.

Mr. Chavez, in Buenos Aires, called Mr. Bush’s tour an attempt to “divide” and “confuse” Latin American countries.

“The future belongs to us,” Mr. Chavez told reporters, adding “Oh, ho, ho! Gringo go home!”

Mr. Chavez’s trip to Argentina is ostensibly for talks with President Nestor Kirchner, a center-left ally. He also planned to visit a struggling Argentine dairy plant that Venezuela is pledging to help.

The parallel meetings are shaping up to be a reprise of the November 2005 Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where a leftist rally by Mr. Chavez at a packed stadium tarnished Mr. Bush’s appearance. There, the Venezuelan president claimed U.S. free-trade proposals were “buried.”

Before heading Thursday for Brazil, Mr. Bush said he was ready to challenge perceptions that U.S. neglect has empowered Mr. Chavez.

“The trip is to remind people that we care,” Mr. Bush said in an interview Wednesday with CNN en Espanol.

But many in the region still blame Washington for historically tolerating brutal military regimes such as the Argentina dictatorship of 1976-1983, when thousands of dissidents disappeared.

Capturing the anti-American sentiment, Mercedes Merono of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo urged a big turnout for the Chavez rally. The Mothers group continues to search for children and grandchildren who were abducted and never seen again in the government crackdown known as the “Dirty War.”

“This counter-rally is extremely important,” she said. “Bush seeks to take advantage of Latin America while Chavez supports the region’s independence.”

Protests erupted around Latin America even before Mr. Bush arrived on Thursday — the biggest of them in the Brazilian metropolis of Sao Paulo, where 6,000 students, environmentalists and left-leaning Brazilians clashed with police firing tear gas and wielding batons.

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