CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says he'd welcome a visit by a top U.S. State Department official and hopes to build close ties with like-minded Americans despite his vehement opposition to U.S. President George W. Bush.
Chavez raised the possibility of a visit by Thomas Shannon, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, on Sunday after meeting with a group of visiting Americans who thanked him for shipments of discounted heating oil to low-income U.S. communities this winter.
Chavez said Shannon had called the Venezuelan foreign minister and said he wanted to visit, but the U.S. State Deparment on Monday denied that, saying Shannon had not requested a visit.
"We don't have any problem with Thomas Shannon coming," Chavez said. "If he shows respect, we'll respect him."
Chavez repeated that U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield would be expelled if he keeps trying to provoke confrontations — like an April 7 incident when the envoy ventured into a pro-Chavez slum and had his car pelted by eggs and tomatoes from an angry crowd.
Chavez said Brownfield is "going around looking for an act of violence," and he raised the theory that Washington could try to use such an incident as a pretext for military intervention. Chavez said U.S. naval exercises now being held in the Caribbean are intended "to threaten us."
The State Department has blamed the Chavez administration for such incidents, since it notifies Venezuelan authorities in advance of the ambassador's travel plans.
Chavez treated the more than 60 Americans, visiting from northeastern U.S. states where Venezuela's Citgo Petroleum Corp. delivered millions of gallons (liters) of discounted heating oil, as guests of honor during his weekly television program, broadcast from the eastern town of El Tigre.
And they shared the feeling.
"We want to thank you personally for what you're doing for people," said James Sappier, a chief of the Penobscot Indian tribe near Bangor, Maine, who gave Chavez a carved prayer staff and prayed with him.
Some said they hoped to learn more about Chavez's social programs for the poor.
"This is a place of humanity for sure. You people have a vision," said Russell Anderson, of Maine. "It is nothing like what the United States government would want me to believe."
Chavez insists the U.S. government has systematically sought to overthrow him in order to seize Venezuela's vast oil reserves. U.S. officials have denied it, but say Chavez poses a threat to regional stability.
Chavez predicts a Venezuelan victory in a historic confrontation between U.S. "imperialism" and the ideals of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"They may accuse me of interfering there, but we're also going to win over the people of the United States," he said. "We need the people of the United States in this struggle. ... We love the people of the United States."
Chavez also accused Washington of trying to undermine newly elected President Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Nicraguan presidential candidate Daniel Ortega, also appearing on the show, accused the U.S. of interfering in upcoming elections there as well.