He has been called a terrorist by Washington but for three and a half hours yesterday in London he could do no wrong. An adoring audience of British left-wingers and the Latin American diaspora cheered, clapped, sang and laughed as Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez denounced President Bush and capitalism and praised Ken Livingstone and the Pope.
The Camden centre in north London is usually home to trade fairs, conferences and school exams, but yesterday it throbbed with calls for a new world order.
"We love you," shouted a woman at the 800-strong gathering, which President Chávez had been invited to attend by London's mayor. "We love you very much," responded the president in unexpected English. To applause, he told them: "I was remembering my English classes in school. I remember very much my English classes - 'Do you want a coffee? Do you want a glass of milk'?"
During his marathon address, with occasional pauses to ask his "amigo" Ken whether his time was up, he managed to refer to everyone from George Bernard Shaw to Rosa Luxemburg, Pythagoras to Thomas Jefferson, CLR James to his mother. Reminding his audience it was mother's day in Venezuela and that his speech was going out live on his weekly programme, he even managed to send a message to his mum.
"Sometimes I'm a terrorist according to Washington or a guy who does military coups," said President Chávez, in front of a backdrop of his country's red, blue and yellow flag. "But all we did was participate in a revolutionary movement, which is what we are doing now." He went through a history of revolution in Latin America and described how his hero, Simon Bolivar, had visited London in 1810.
He said: "I am a Catholic and a Christian and a very committed Christian and I was talking to the Pope about the struggle against poverty - I call it Christ's cause." Then he was talking about the first time he had met Fidel Castro.
He won applause from a large contingent of banner-bearing women when he said that one of the features of capitalism is that it excludes and exploits women.
On the platform with him were many leading figures of the left. He pointed out Tariq Ali, and made him show the crowd a satirical poster he had portraying Chávez, Castro and Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, as the Pirates of the Caribbean. He attacked the administration in Washington as "the greatest threat to this planet ... Imagine they launch this attack on Iran. They've got it planned. If the US attack Iran, people in England who drive cars will have to park them. Oil will be $100 a barrel."
The man who survived a coup in 2002 - "planned in the Pentagon and the White House" - told the audience to huge applause: "I know there are plans to kill me. It doesn't matter. It won't stop me."
Last time he visited England, he had tea with the Queen and met Tony Blair but there was no mention of the prime minister yesterday although he has referred to him in the past as a "pawn of imperialism." But he did repeatedly say: "We are socialists. We are building it; it comes from our soul; it has to be imbued with humanism. If you can't love, you can't be a socialist."
In the audience was Bianca Jagger who said she had come to "listen and learn ... I'm Nicaraguan so I am interested in the politics of Latin America and I have one or two questions I would like to ask him." She said it was important for people in Europe to understand the motivations of President Chávez and President Morales with regard to their energy supplies. "You need to understand the history of the oil companies in Latin America," she said. "They left a terrible environmental disaster behind them and they have never been accountable for it."
The Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, who was on the platform, said: "I am very interested in what they are doing in Venezuela in terms of lessening the gap between rich and poor. Maybe the British government could learn something from that. Blair and the government should recognise which way the wind is blowing in Latin America."
Bob Neill, Leader of the London Assembly Conservatives, will be meeting a delegation of Venezuelan dissidents at City Hall today. Mr Neill said: "They will be able to relay first-hand experiences of violence and oppression in Venezuela."
President Chávez had arrived in London from a summit in Vienna of leaders from the EU and Latin America and Caribbean nations. This week he will be going to Algeria and Libya. In Vienna, he had said: "The final hours of empire have arrived. Now we have to say to the empire 'We are not afraid of you, you are a paper tiger'." He suggested the US was as doomed as a pig on its way to the slaughterhouse. He also wanted to provide cheap heating oil for poor Europeans. "I want to humbly offer support to the poorest people who do not have resources for central heating in winter and make sure that support arrives."
Original source: The Guardian