LONDON – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrived in London Sunday for a two-day visit that includes meetings with London's maverick mayor, left-leaning lawmakers and trade unions. The one thing missing is a face-to-face with Britain's prime minister, or any government official for that matter.
The visit is in stark contrast to his trip to Britain in 2001 when he warmly embraced Tony Blair.
Tensions between the two governments have been escalating since February, when Blair told legislators in the House of Commons that Venezuela "should abide by the rules of the international community" and that he would like to see Venezuela's close ally Cuba become a "functioning democracy."
Chavez responded by saying Blair's comments came like a "cannon blast."
Outside a conference center in north London where Chavez was to meet representatives of non-governmental organizations and left-leaning parties Sunday afternoon, dozens of supporters waited to greet him, waving yellow signs proclaiming "London welcomes President Chavez." One supporter was wrapped in the Venezuelan flag while another carried a Cuban flag, testament to Chavez's close links to Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Chavez, a fierce critic of the war in Iraq, has characterized Blair as a "pawn of imperialism" over his close alliance with U.S President George W. Bush, whom Chavez has compared to Adolf Hitler.
Chavez's moves to exert greater control over his country's vast petroleum reserves have also drawn criticism from Britain and other countries.
Venezuela's London embassy issued a statement Thursday, confirming that Chavez would not have any contact with the British government during his visit. The statement did not mention the recent tensions, saying only that Chavez has "already had an official visit to the United Kingdom where he met with the prime minister and other British authorities."
Officials in Blair's office and the Foreign Ministry have declined to comment on the reasons why Chavez is not meeting with any senior British official, saying only that the Venezuelan leader's visit is "private."
A spokeswoman in Blair's office added that Venezuelan officials had not requested a meeting.
A researcher at the Chatham House think tank in London said that if everything was fine between the two countries, Chavez would at least meet with a senior British official.
"It's certainly a sign of quite a frictional situation between two countries," Sam Hardy said. "Chavez is going to be in London for two days," he added. It seems "that he should meet with a high-ranking official."
On Sunday Chavez will address a meeting on Venezuelan social reform and greet supporters at a conference center in London.
On Monday, he attends meetings with British trade union officials before a news conference at London's City Hall. Chavez is also due to have lunch with London Mayor Ken Livingstone — a vocal Chavez supporter — and guests including Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winning playwright, and Bianca Jagger, the actress and political activist.
Chavez gives a lecture Monday evening at Canning House, an institution that works to strengthen commercial and cultural ties between Britain, Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula.
Chavez attended a three-day summit of European Union, Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Vienna, Austria, which ended Saturday. He also visited Italy and met with the pope.