Saturday, April 18, 2009



Associated Press Writer

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez was greeted like a rock star by onlookers when he arrived at a 34-nation summit — but only because Barack Obama had slipped through a back door.

A short while later, a roomful of dignitaries from every nation in the Americas except Cuba met the U.S. president with thundering applause and a few whoops. Some stood up to clap.

No one else got as warm a reception, and Obama was repeatedly interrupted by applause as he promised an "equal partnership" with the region, including a bid to mend relations with Cuba.

Chavez didn't speak at the opening ceremony and had to be content sitting quietly with the other leaders. It was a big change from the last Summit of the Americas in 2004, when he led the pack in defeating a hemispheric trade accord spearheaded by his nemesis, former U.S. President George W. Bush.

Though Chavez remains hugely popular among Latin American leftists, he has been considerably weakened by Bush's departure and Obama's arrival. He's also less powerful because his oil-rich nation can't simply buy as much good will now that oil prices have plunged.

"In the end, Chavez is a product of Bush," said Marta Lagos, director of the Chile-based Latinobarometro polling firm. "Chavez would have never existed if Bush hadn't opposed him the way he had."

Obama and Chavez exchanged a warm handshake just before the summit began, with the Venezuelan leader telling Obama: "I want to be your friend."

But Chavez bashed the United States in comments to reporters just minutes before he met Obama, saying a proposal to readmit Cuba to the Organization of American States —which suspended it 47 years ago — is meaningless because the OAS is "under the domination of the United States."

He also criticized the summit itself, saying it was conceived in 1994 only to advance U.S. interests.

Chavez was the only leader present in Trinidad who also attended two previous summits, which are held every five years. A new wave of leaders have since come to power. "I'm the only old guy here," Chavez told reporters.

Some analysts say a weakened Chavez is still trying to figure out how he can criticize the United States while not taking on Obama. "On the whole, I think the election of Obama has thrown him off balance," said Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "Bush was such a perfect target."

Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.