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Venezuela's Chavez sets stage for war of words

NBC News correspondent  Kelly O’Donnell reports from the Summit of the Americas on how the anti-Bush demonstrations will affect the larger conversation about job creation and the best way to strengthen economies.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez address
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addresses the audience during the "People's Summit" massive rally against the Summit of the Americas, in Mar del Plata's stadium on Friday. Juan Mabromata / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

The Summit of the Americas began on Friday with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addressing thousands of anti-Bush protesters in a soccer stadium, setting the stage for a war of words between himself and President Bush over the importance of free trade.

Meantime, the White House worked to defuse the anti-American rhetoric as Bush vowed to “be polite” in encounters with the outspoken Venezuelan leader.

NBC News’ Kelly O’Donnell reports from the summit on how the anti-Bush demonstrations effect the larger conversation between the leaders of the 34 countries in attendance at the summit about job creation and strengthening their economies and whether or not Bush is bothered by the demonstrations that follow him wherever he goes.

What are Chavez’s main grievances with the U.S. and how are they coming to the forefront at this event?

Well, Chavez spoke at length in a football stadium here. And when I say at length, I mean, more than two hours in a rousing speech. At times he was jumping up and down, sort of mimicking the enthusiasm that you see during a soccer or football match.

He is a friend of Fidel Castro. He believes in a leftist, a socialist view, and believes that the U.S. has tried to bring trade policies to Latin America that, according to Chavez, do not really benefit the people.

Chavez, as the head of Venezuela, also controls an enormous supply of oil which he has been able to use to leverage his influence. He also did some saber rattling, calling the U.S. an imperial power. He said that he believes that the U.S. is trying to overthrow him and given the U.S. policy in Iraq, might actually try to invade Venezuela.

So very strong words from Chavez. He did speak at length and in just a few sentences referenced President Bush directly.

President Bush was asked about this on Friday by reporters traveling with him. His response was that he would be polite. And that the American people would expect him as their leader to be polite should he cross paths with Chavez while they are here at the summit.

Both are in attendance because both are elected leaders in the Americas and there are more than 30 countries represented here. 

How is the war of words between Bush and Chavez expected to play out?

These are delicate situations because the opposition that Chavez poses to the U.S. is well known. He does not shy away from being critical of President Bush and the U.S. administration.

So from the White House perspective, they are trying to tone this down and say that this is not a meeting about Chavez and Bush. But rather that this is a meeting about much broader issues, about job creation and economics.

The two presidents may cross paths at times when all of leaders are appearing together for what is known as the “class photo” or some of the other social gatherings. But they don’t have any planned one-on-one time, or participation in any of the same panel discussions. 

So, other leaders are all operating on their own agendas. So, Chavez is getting a lot of attention, and the White House is certainly trying to quiet that as best as possible and to avoid causing any more direct trouble by engaging with him. 

At a press conference with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, Bush acknowledged that his presence can present difficulties. Do the anti-Bush protests that follow him wherever he goes start to wear on him at all? Does he respond to them at all?

I think the protests around the president have very little effect on him for a number of reasons. It is a constant, it has always been present at any event or anywhere he travels, somewhere outside the secure perimeter there are protesters.

The difference can be how loud they are or how great in numbers they are.

Every indication is that President Bush knows the protesters are there, and feels strongly that they have a right to protest and that they should use that right, that it won’t effect how he makes decisions, or how he conducts policy.

So, those that are familiar with his thinking say that it doesn’t affect how he responds to things.

He has witnessed it since his father was vice-president and president. He saw it from a distance and now he experiences it as president.

So, he knows that there are thousands gathered there in protest. He did acknowledged it in a light-hearted way in saying to the president of Argentina, I know it’s difficult to host this event and its difficult to host me. So, he acknowledged that it has not been easy and that there are a lot of ramifications when you have protesters who are primarily focused on President Bush.

Of course the local community is affected by that with police and a lot of stores closed here during the summit to try to minimize any problems. So, it does have any impact on how this event goes forward, but all indications are that it doesn’t have a great deal of impact on President Bush himself.