TRINIDAD, Bolivia – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's counter-Bush tour touched down Saturday in this flood-ravaged cow town in Bolivia's eastern lowlands, where the leftist firebrand presented disaster victims with a stark ideological choice.
While U.S. president George W. Bush travels to friendly Latin American nations to shore up relations and highlight U.S. aid to the region, Chavez appears intent on spoiling the show on his parallel trip, saying at every turn that Venezuela is doing more to help the region.
Responding to a Bolivian flood of near-biblical proportions that has surrounded this city of 90,000 with miles of water and the stench of drowned livestock, Chavez quoted scripture while extolling a socialist Latin America unified against the U.S. "empire" to north.
"Blessed be this moment," Chavez told a crowd of some 2,000 Bolivian flood victims and Venezuelan and Cuban aid workers gathered on a steaming airport runway to hear his words. "It is written in the Bible that there is a time for everything that happens under the sun. And now is the time of the liberation of our people."
As the crowd cheered and waved the flags of the three Latin American countries, Chavez offered them a choice.
"Those who want to go directly to hell, they can follow capitalism," Chavez said. "And those of us who want to build heaven here on Earth, we will follow socialism."
A rainy season supercharged by El Nino has killed 51 people here, driven tens of thousands from their homes and triggered an outbreak of dengue.
Venezuela's pledge of $15 million in flood aid is 10 times the $1.5 million sent by the U.S.
While the largest part of the U.S. aid was dropped off in a single afternoon, Venezuelan aid workers have swarmed Trinidad's tiny air force base for weeks, working out of a command center in an office without air conditioning.
On the wall above the Venezuelans' computers hangs a faded, overlooked photo of a U.S. Air Force bomber.
On Saturday, Chavez saluting the Venezuelan doctors and helicopter pilots in the crowd while unabashedly touting the aid's connection with his larger political aims.
"The revolution advances," Chavez said. "Trinidad has become, through its tragedy, an example of the advance of the unification ... of the people of our America."
Chavez's tour started in Argentina, where he met with leftist Argentina President Nestor Kirchner and packed a soccer stadium Friday at a rally where he called Bush a "political cadaver," blasted U.S. policies as "imperialist" and told the crowd of 20,000 that the U.S. president's tour is an attempt to divide Latin America.
In Bolivia, Chavez was visiting an area whose local leaders are sharply at odds with leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales, a close ally of the Venezuelan president.
The Trinidad mayor and Beni governor, both members of Bolivia's chief conservative opposition party, have complained that Venezuelan aid workers do not answer to their authority. On Saturday they refused to receive Chavez, the only foreign head of state ever to visit.
"We are grateful for the assistance of the Venezuelan people, but we're bothered by the intervention of Chavez in Bolivia," Trinidad Mayor Moises Shiriqui told The Associated Press. "He's coming here for a political campaign."
But flood victims say the state governor's office has been slow to distribute the foreign aid it has received — including some plastic tarps donated by the U.S.
Bush, after stops in Brazil and Uruguay, on Sunday heads to Colombia to meet with Alvaro Uribe — the most U.S.-friendly president in the region — and then continues to Guatemala.
Chavez, meanwhile, plans a visit with Nicaragua's leftist President Daniel Ortega and travel to Haiti to discuss sending aid to the impoverished country.
In Bolivia, Chavez has pledged more than US$1 billion for Bolivian petroleum projects, community radio stations and even a factory to make tea from coca leaves. The two countries have also signed a broad military cooperation pact.
In contrast, the U.S. military presence in Bolivia has all but disappeared. Meanwhile, the Bush administration's 2008 budget proposal slashes U.S. aid to Bolivia by more than 20 percent, from $125 million to $98 million.