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Hugo Chavez denounces Bush in a rally in Argentina

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—With George Bush only a few miles distant across the broad River Plate that separates this city from Montevideo, Uruguay, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Friday slammed the American president as a "coward" and urged him to return to the United States.

"Gringo, go home," Chavez chanted as a crowd numbering about 32,000 urged him on. A huge banner behind Chavez proclaimed, "Latin American Unity, Bush Out."

But whether Chavez accomplished his goal of undercutting Bush's foray into Latin America was unclear.

While many in the crowd expressed similar criticisms of Bush, who was arriving in Montevideo after a day of meetings with Brazil's president in Sao Paulo, reporters on the scene said the crowd grew noticeably thinner during the second hour of Chavez's speech. Spectators clapped and cheered at his remarks, but without the electricity that often greets his speeches back home.

The rally, in a soccer stadium in a working-class neighborhood, was organized by Argentina's respected human rights group Mothers of the Plaza, whose founding was rooted in opposition to Argentina's military dictatorship decades ago. Argentine President Nestor Kirchner helped organize the rally.

Kirchner didn't attend, and other invited big-name guests, such as Bolivian President Evo Morales, declined days ago. (Morales, who'd been in Japan, said he couldn't make to Argentina in time.)

Francisca Javiera Roble, 67, who called Bush's Latin America trip "insincere," said Chavez gave voice to her own sentiments. Others acknowledged that they were there primarily because their unions had helped organize the event. One of those, Jose Savedra, offered only "I don't know" when asked what he liked about Chavez.

Still, Chavez, the rally's only speaker, may have been satisfied by the outcome. His visit generated steady television coverage and provided him the opportunity to compare his aid program in Latin America with that of the United States. Venezuela's $4 billion dwarfs the United States' $1.6 billion.

At one point during the rally, Chavez pointed in what he said was the direction of Uruguay and said he could sense Bush's presence. He then thanked Bush for providing an excuse for the rally.

"This event is to say no to the presence of the imperial gentleman in the heroic lands of San Martin and Bolivar," he proclaimed, referring to two Latin American independence heroes.

Earlier in the day, Chavez met with Kirchner in Argentina's presidential palace, where they signed numerous accords on energy and agriculture.

Chavez also appeared on the government's Channel 7, where he denounced the "empire" and said Bush's visit was a sham.

"I believe the chief objective of the Bush trip is to try to scrub clean the face of the empire in Latin America. But it's too late," Chavez said. "It seems he's just now discovered that poverty exists in the region."

At the rally, Chavez provided a laundry list of perceived U.S. wrongs. He condemned the U.S. for hoarding the world's oil supply, saying those supplies belong "to Venezuela, to Argentina and to the people of Latin America."

He called for the expansion of the South American trading bloc, Mercosur, and denounced the U.S. push for trade treaties in the region.

He also called on the crowd to salute Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

When he finished, fireworks burst into the air—a promise perhaps of things to come: As Bush moves on to stops in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, Chavez has planned a tour of his own—to Bolivia to check on flood victims there and then to Haiti, where Venezuela's state-run development bank has pledged $20 million for health care, education and housing.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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