Chavez visits flood-stricken Bolivia
TRINIDAD, Bolivia – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez visited flood-ravaged Bolivia on Saturday to show off the fact that his country has pledged 10 times more aid than the Bush administration. But local leaders gave him a cool reception, accusing him of meddling in Bolivian politics.Bolivia was the latest stop on a Chavez tour intended to upstage President Bush’s own trip through Latin America. While Bush visited Brazil on Friday, Chavez packed a soccer stadium in neighboring Argentina, telling a crowd of 20,000 leftist supporters that Bush’s tour was a cynical attempt to divide the region.Thousands of Bolivians, joined by Venezuelan aid workers, greeted Chavez at the airport in Trinidad, a city in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands where a rainy season supercharged by El Nino has killed 51 people, driven thousands from their homes and triggered an outbreak of dengue fever.Chavez, wearing an untucked red shirt in the blazing heat, kissed a Bolivian flag held by sailors in dress whites. He has pledged $15 million in aid for flood victims, including a squadron of helicopters to deliver food to remote villages, dwarfing the $1.5 million sent by the U.S.”Those who want to go directly to hell, they can follow capitalism,” Chavez told the crowd of some 2,000 Bolivian flood victims and Venezuelan and Cuban aid workers gathered on the steaming airport runway. “And those of us who want to build heaven here on Earth, we will follow socialism.”However, not everyone welcomed Chavez. Bolivia’s cattle-ranching state of Beni is a stronghold of opposition to President Evo Morales, a Chavez ally who has pledged to redistribute large tracts of land to the poor. Local leaders see Chavez’s generosity as political opportunism and resent his influence in Bolivia.The Beni governor and the mayor of Trinidad have refused to receive Chavez, complaining that Venezuelan aid workers have ignored their authority.”We are grateful for the assistance of the Venezuelan people, but we’re bothered by the intervention of Chavez in Bolivia,” Mayor Moises Shiriqui told The Associated Press. “He’s coming here for a political campaign.”Still, Chavez and Morales could capitalize on public complaints that the governor’s office has been slow to distribute foreign aid to the city of 90,000 residents, surrounded for a month by miles of black water.One family living under a tarp – stamped with the logo of the U.S. Agency for International Development – said they had slept in the open for two weeks before marching on the governor’s office to demand help.”To go there every day, every day, makes you feel ashamed,” said Santiago Jou. “And in the end, they don’t even give you a soda.”Morales and Chavez were to give away shiny red tractors jointly made by Venezuela and Iran. Since Morales took office a year ago, Chavez has pledged more than $1 billion for Bolivian petroleum projects, community radio stations and a factory to make tea from coca leaves.In contrast, the Bush administration’s 2008 budget proposal slashes U.S. aid to Bolivia by more than 20 percent, from $125 million to $98 million, part of a deep aid cut targeting much of Latin America.The U.S. has criticized Bolivia for failing to deal with increased coca production under Morales, though ties have recently improved with the two countries negotiating a trade deal.The dueling tours continue Sunday, with Bush moving on from Uruguay to U.S.-friendly Colombia, while Chavez visits impoverished Haiti to discuss sending aid.Bush’s Latin America tour was met with protests in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Guatemala.In Guatemala City, protesters burned American flags in front of the U.S. embassy on Saturday and held up posters of Bush bearing a Hitler-style mustache. In El Salvador about 100 protesters staged a small demonstration against the president’s tour, though he was not scheduled to visit the Central American country.—Associated Press writers Alvaro Zuazo in La Paz, Bolivia, and Shane Romig in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.