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Why Chavez is wooing autocrats abroad

Less popular among Latin leaders, the Venezuelan president is on an 11-day trip to visit allies including Libya's Qaddafi and Iran's Ahmadinejad.

By Tyler BridgesMcClatchy Newspapers / September 4, 2009

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks during a press conference at al-Shaab presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, on Thursday – part of a multi-nation tour.

Bassem Tellawi/AP

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Caracas, Venezuela

Stymied in trying to advance his anti-US agenda in Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is tightening the screws at home — and touring friendly autocratic regimes abroad.

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Opponents are organizing a massive march for Saturday in Caracas, disregarding warnings by Venezuela's top federal prosecutor that protesters could face prison sentences of up to 24 years for disturbing the peace.

"We dare the government to put into prison not only the leaders of the 25 groups heading up the march but the hundreds and hundreds of people who will call for a democratic end to this government," Henry Ramos, head of the Accion Democratica political party told a crowd of supporters on Wednesday.

Chavez won't be in Venezuela to hear these calls, however. He is in the midst of visiting friendly autocracies in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

Chavez began this trip after failing to convince other South American presidents at a regional summit last week to condemn the expanded US military presence planned for neighboring Colombia.

Not winning their backing marked the latest in a string of defeats for Chavez in Latin America, including the ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, a key ally in Central America.

Chavez most dangerous when weak

Analysts don't expect Chavez to retreat despite the setbacks.

"Chavez is most dangerous not when he's strong but when he's weak," says Matias Spektor, a foreign policy specialist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. "He needs to show the grand gesture and crack down at home."

Chavez thought he could capitalize on the leaked word that Colombia was planning to allow US troops to have access to seven of its military bases throughout the country. US allies such as Brazil and Chile, reflecting age-old regional resentments against Uncle Sam, voiced concern about the agreement.

Chavez warned repeatedly that it "loosed the winds of war" and would lead to a US invasion of Venezuela. To dramatize his concern, Chavez threatened to cut off trade with Colombia — a major source of food, machinery, and cars for Venezuela — as well as diplomatic relations.

Latin leaders stand up against Chavez

At Friday's meeting in the Argentine ski resort of Bariloche, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe vigorously defended the agreement. He said the US would never have more than 1,400 troops in Colombia at any time and they would be there only to assist the government fight drug traffickers and the FARC guerrillas.

Peruvian President Alan Garcia challenged Chavez's talk of an "invasion threat," by reminding everyone who's buying his oil.

"Why are they going to dominate the petroleum if you already sell it all to the United States?'' Garcia playfully asked Chavez.

The room erupted in laughter — that is, everybody but Chavez.

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