Britain's left-wing 'aristocracy' greet their hero Chavez

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Indy Politics

He has been described as a fearless champion of the oppressed poor against the corrupt rich and their American sponsors. But also as a dangerous demagogue subsidising totalitarian regimes with his country's oil wells. Yesterday in London, however, there was no doubt about what the hundreds who had thronged to see Hugo Chavez thought of him.

Around a thousand people packed into Camden Town Hall to witness a mixture of a Latin American populist rally, an evangelical meeting and a football match. The chanting, foot-stomping crowd thunderously proclaimed: "Ooh ah, Chavez no se va," as the President of Venezuela spoke.

The cry ("Chavez will not go") which originates from the streets of Caracas, and the barrios of those fiercely loyal to Chavez, came when he described attempts to overthrow him by, he claims, the US through their Venezuelan proxies.

And yesterday in the People's Republic of Camden the villains remained very much President George W Bush, his acolyte Tony Blair, big business and the forces of reaction.

Old Labour was present recalling its radical past with MP Jeremy Corbyn and Tariq Ali. Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who had invited President Chavez, was in the chair.

Banners of trade unions, human rights groups and the CND hung next to each other on the walls. There were also activists like Bianca Jagger and civil rights lawyer Gareth Peirce.

Mr Corbyn, never knowingly one to agree with Tony Blair and his cabinet, said New Labour had a lot to learn from Venezuela. Nicaraguan born Ms Jagger, said President Chavez was leading the fight against imperialism among a new generation of South American leaders.

Chavez was not meeting Mr Blair, whom he has called 'the main ally of Hitler' because of his friendship with Mr Bush, or his cabinet. He has no protocol reasons to do so as this is a private visit. He will, however, see around 80 labour MPs and a handful of Lib Dems today. William Hague, as shadow foreign secretary, is also said to be seeking an audience with El Presidente.

In a previous visit to London in April 1998, Senor Chavez has declared himself a convert to Mr Blair's Third Way. He was given tea with the Queen and dinner with John Prescott. Since then Mr Blair's popularity has waned, at least domestically, while President Chavez made this month's Time magazine's list of the worlds 100 most influential people.

The Venezuelan president has been building a Latin American open "axis of good" against "American hegemony". He has replaced the Soviet Union as the supplier of cut-price oil to Cuba, helped pay off Argentina's US2.3 billion debt to the IMF, and provided free medical aid to citizens of neighbouring countries.

This is part of a European tour by the Venezuelan leader. He has met the Pope in the Vatican and arrived in London after a rally in Vienna. Senor Chavez made his entry into the hall in North London yesterday one hour and 24 minutes late, apologising for his Venezuelan timing. A stocky figure in a charcoal grey suit, white shirt and red tie, the President was greeted with tumultuous ovation.

Mr Livingstone described the President as 'a beacon of democracy and social progress in Latin America' who has won his electoral popularity not least for introducing effective help and education services.

For the next couple of hours President Chavez, speaking without notes, sometimes rambling, presented his vision of the world ­ the need for socialism, peace and justice, and the threat to these precious values from the 'genocidal and perverted' Bush administration.

He quoted Rosa Luxembourg and Pythagoras, Karl Marx and George Bernard Shaw. The biggest cheer came when he recalled the words of the former Mexican president: "Poor Mexico. So far from God, so close to the United States.''

Senor Chavez warned that Washington was even now planning an attack on Iran. This, he said, would "launch a conflagration". He continued: " We do not know who in the region would first reach for the nuclear bomb."

The President bitterly attacked America's foreign policy. "At this moment they are probably bombing Baghdad. How many children will die before the day ends? Why do they have to die?''

The President maintained that if the British government have the courage to stand up to the US it too will be targeted. "That is the fatal obsession of the US, the great lover becomes the great enemy.''

President Chavez claimed that there were plots 'well developed' in Washington to assassinate him. "I know there are plans to kill me, but I really don't care. It will not stop me.

"We may not live to see our dream of socialism come true. But the younger people will see this wonderful, luminous world, believe me."