HUGO CHÁVEZ, the President of Venezuela and one of Tony Blair’s most vocal critics abroad, arrives in London this weekend on a whirlwind visit during which he will be fêted by Ken Livingstone, Labour MPs and the TUC but will avoid contact with the Prime Minister and his Government.
The diplomatic snub will be delivered at the end of a three-nation tour of Europe by the soldier turned politician who denounced Mr Blair as “the main ally of Hitler” for his support of President Bush.
Officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said yesterday that Señor Chávez was on a private visit, similar to other world leaders who come to London for shopping trips or medical treatment.
The difference this time, however, is that the Venezuelan head of state will hardly be keeping a low profile as he attends an exhausting round of public engagements, many of them only a short distance from Downing Street.
On Sunday Señor Chávez is due to address supporters in Westminster. On Monday he meets the TUC, gives a press conference at City Hall with the Mayor and visits MPs at the House of Commons. On Tuesday he opens a museum and makes a speech in Whitehall.
Venezuelan officials said that the trip had been made at the request of Señor Chávez to thank his supporters in Britain, many of them on the Left of the Labour Party. This visit is certainly in contrast to his first, in 2001, when he was welcomed by Mr Blair, dined with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and had an audience with the Queen.
Relations soured over Britain’s involvement in Iraq and London’s growing criticism of Señor Chávez, who has used Venezuela’s oil wealth to push a left-wing movement across Latin America that he has nicknamed the “axis of good”.
In 2002 Denis MacShane, then a junior Foreign Office minister, compared Señor Chávez to Mussolini, and described him as a “ranting, populist demagogue”.
In February this year Mr Blair advised the President to “abide by the rules of the international community”. The next day Señor Chávez demanded that Britain return the Falkland Islands to Argentina and stop behaving as an imperialist power. “Tony Blair, you have no moral right to tell anyone to respect international laws, as you have shown no respect for them, aligning yourself with ‘Mr Danger’ [President Bush] and trampling on the people of Iraq,” he said. “Do you think we still live in the times of the British Empire or colonialism?” Any repeat of his claims in London may embarrass the Prime Minister but will be cheered by the President’s supporters, who regard his global movement as a challenge to the policies of the Bush Administration.
“There are many areas where we can benefit from the Venezuelan experience — including energy and environmental policies, democratic participation and, of course, his Government’s remarkable achievements in eliminating illiteracy, widening access to education and extending free healthcare to the majority of the population for the first time,” Mr Livingstone said.
Colin Burgon, MP for Elmet and chairman of Labour Friends of Venezuela, said that Señor Chávez had an important message to deliver in Britain and that the Prime Minister was wrong to criticise him.
“When one considers that Hugo Chávez won an electoral majority in 2002, survived an attempted coup thanks to massive public protests and was the resounding winner of a referendum on his administration in 2004, the implied accusation seems inaccurate,” he said.
“Our party should support the mobilisation of wide-reaching free healthcare and education schemes aimed at the reversal of decades of social inequality in South and Central America. It is time that the UK re-engaged with Latin America and offered moral support to regimes intent on social justice and redistribution of wealth.”
4pm Speaks to supporters at Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster
9am Meets TUC leaders at Congress House. Address to supporters
11am Meets Ken Livingstone at City Hall
1pm Joint press conference at City Hall
4pm Meets MPs at House of Commons
4pm Speech at Banqueting House, Whitehall. Media interviews. Departs