Venezuelan president, rivals tour South America seeking allies after contested election

Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and his ally Cristina Fernandez met behind closed doors on Wednesday ahead of a big soccer-stadium rally organized by the Argentine president's supporters.

"I feel very strongly the presence and fresh fingerprints of the 'comandante,'" said Maduro, who was hand-picked by the dying Hugo Chavez to take over his socialist government in Caracas. "Chavez deeply loved the people of San Martin, of Peron, of Evita, of Nestor Kirchner," he said, naming a string of Argentine icons.

Maduro met earlier with Uruguayan President Jose Mujica in Montevideo, and his next stop will be Brazil, rounding out a tour meant to shore up support after narrowly winning an election challenged as fraudulent by his challenger Henrique Capriles. The vote has left Venezuela even more polarized, and Maduro in need of fast friends.

Mujica gave Maduro, who will inherit Mercosur's rotating presidency in June, a boost when he said Venezuela's presence in the trade group is very important. Fernandez, for her part, mobilized "Organized and United," a coalition of pro-government groups that reliably delivers supporters to political rallies.

But Maduro's Venezuelan opponents also have gathered at every stop along the way, denouncing him as a threat to democracy.

While Fernandez was sending busloads to fill the 21,500-seat All Boys stadium, his rivals were calling for protesters to gather at Argentina's iconic obelisk. Venezuelan opposition lawmakers also met with their counterparts in Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Colombia, lamenting together the lack of criticism from the region's presidents.

Maduro dismissed his opponents as "right wing extremists" and said "they can travel to Siberia or Antarctica to complain if they want to."

This trip is purely symbolic because most of the region's leaders already showed their support by attending Maduro's inauguration in Caracas despite Capriles' efforts to challenge the results, said Jorge Restrepo, who directs Colombia's Resource Center for the Analysis of Conflicts.

That has more to do with economic pragmatism and petroleum than a shared ideology, said Ivan Garzon, who runs the law and political science departments at the University of La Sabana in Bogota.

Venezuela is a huge importer of goods, bringing in $59 billion worth last year. In exchange, it provides a massive amount of oil and gas at preferential terms to its Latin American allies. Maduro is probably telling his allies that Venezuela's petrodollars won't dry up, the analysts said.

"He'll tell Cristina, 'Relax, the checkbook is still working.' The money won't flow as quickly as it did under Chavez, but it's not going to stop tomorrow," Garzon said.

Restrepo agreed: "No one will intervene in Venezuelan politics. It's in no one's interest to do so."

But Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman dove right into the fray, blaming Maduro's opponents for any violence.

"This is a president who is being attacked by an opposition that doesn't respect election results. There's an opposition that will receive him here as well," Timerman said. "Their line is, 'If I win the elections, they're democratic; If I lose, they're fraudulent.' "


Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera in Bogota and Pablo Fernandez in Montevideo contributed to this report.