CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez returned to the national spotlight on Valentine's Day to tell U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that he misses her verbal attacks.
"It had been days since she had given me any attention. How are you, Condoleezza?" Chavez asked in a speech Wednesday to pensioners in the capital of Caracas.
It was Chavez's first response to Rice's testimony last week to a U.S. congressional committee that the Venezuelan leader was "destroying his own country" economically and politically — an apparent reference to a centralization of power in Venezuela and moves to nationalize key sectors of the economy.
"My dear friend Condoleezza says I am destroying the Venezuelan economy," said Chavez, a fierce critic of U.S.-style capitalism, in his first public appearance in 10 days.
"Death to the empire!" Chavez said. "We will not be dominated. We have decided to be free!"
Chavez also said Venezuela was not concerned with plans by the Bush administration to become less dependent on crude from politically unfriendly nations. "If they do not want to buy it, say it, and I will not sell them oil," he said.
Venezuela's top export market for crude is the United States.
Chavez last appeared in public at a Feb. 4 military parade, during which a man interrupted his speech with shouts before being dragged away by guards.
Chavez said he will expand his Sunday "Hello, President" radio and TV program to every weekday. The show will last an hour and a half under the new format.