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Venezuela's Chavez to lead anti-Bush rally in Argentina

Jack Chang
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

SAO PAULO, Brazil - When President Bush lands in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo Friday night as part of his seven-day Latin American tour, leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce Bush critic, will be on the attack just across the river in Argentina.

Chavez is scheduled to speak to tens of thousands of anti-Bush protesters in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires, and he'll do it with the blessing of Argentine President Nestor Kirchner. In fact, Kirchner's aides are helping to organize the rally.

Kirchner won't attend the rally, but his hosting of Chavez signals a decisive step away from the United States and toward the Venezuelan's confrontational, anti-free markets vision.

Kirchner previously had been known as a more pragmatic leftist politician somewhere between Chavez and center-left Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

"Up to this point, Kirchner has been playing a very ambiguous game," said Alvaro Vargas Llosa, a U.S.-based Latin American analyst. "The significance of what is happening on Friday is Kirchner is moving more decisively toward Chavez and away from other, more moderate left-wing governments in the region."

Kirchner has been building up to the move for the past month. On Feb. 21, while joining Chavez in Venezuela to inaugurate an oil well to be run by Venezuela and Argentina, Kirchner boldly defended Chavez, who's been accused of seeking dictatorial powers in his country.

"Much has been said lately about how there are countries that should contain other countries, as in the case of President Lula or of us, that we must contain President Chavez," Kirchner said. "Absolute error. We are building with brother President Chavez space in South America for the happiness of our people."

Chavez, who regularly calls Bush "the devil," thanked Kirchner for defending him from "those who surrendered to North American imperialism and permitted the plunder of the homeland."

The ties haven't just been rhetorical. Controlling one of the world's biggest oil reserves, Chavez has showered petrodollars on Argentina, agreeing at last month's meeting to buy $750 million in Argentine bonds and bringing Venezuela's total holdings of Argentine debt to $3.5 billion.

The two countries also have launched a Latin American development bank that they hope will replace more traditional lenders such as the International Monetary Fund.

With October presidential elections approaching in Argentina, the closer Chavez ties could also bring political benefits to Kirchner, although he hasn't yet announced whether he or his wife, Sen. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, will run for the top office.

A Latinobarometro poll of more than 20,000 people around Latin America conducted last year found that only Venezuelans and Dominicans supported Chavez more than Argentines. At the same time, Bush received his lowest approval rating in the region from Argentines.

"Being anti-Bush and using Chavez as a decoy has worked so far for Kirchner, so he'll keep using the strategy," said Argentine analyst Felipe Noguera. "He's actually running a government that's fairly conservative in some areas, so I think his Chavista rhetoric is for the gallery."

Activist Jorge Ceballos, a deputy secretary in Kirchner's social development ministry, said that the Argentine president wasn't faking his rhetoric and that his role in Friday's rally proved it.

Ceballos and other pro-Kirchner activists are organizing the event along with the human rights group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, both Chavez allies, were invited but aren't expected to attend.

"Kirchner showed in Venezuela that he is going to defend our countries from North American imperialist interference," Ceballos said. "This rally is a response that promises to unify our region."

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