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On the first of a two-day state visit to Spain, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had harsh words for what he described as the imperial and neoliberal scourge of Latin America. In a speech to the students of the University of Alcalá de Enares, Chávez argued that Latin America and Spain need to break with US economic dominance. In the ceremony that followed at the Madrid campus of the university, Chávez was awarded the International Medal of Alcalá de Enares (Complutense).

The new Spanish government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s Spanish Social Workers Party (PSOE) has been in office since April, 2004. During his two-day visit President Chávez spoke with members of Congress, met with President Zapatero, Prince Felipe, and attended a gathering with Spanish intellectuals and journalists.

He also paid homage to the victims of the Spanish terrorist attacks of March 11th, 2004. He will be visiting Russia, Libya and Iran in the upcoming week.

Chávez has routinely criticized free-trade economic policies aggressively promoted by the United States and has harshly criticized the Bush administration’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by accusing the US of “fighting terrorism with terrorism”. Chávez has, in turn been a regular target of White House spokespeople who decry his close ties with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his alleged anti-democratic ‘tendencies’. Chávez was recently deemed ‘problematic’ by newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who called on the region to “watch him and be vigilant...to pressure Chávez.”

In his speech, Chávez responded to an editorial of the Washington Post in which he was denounced as being ‘an ex-rebel militant’ by saying “they are mistaken; I am not an ex-rebel, I am a rebel.” He went on to accuse the United States of “making the world’s people miserable,” adding “We hope that Bush’s second term will truly be a new government...that they respect human rights and freedom of the press...”. Later during the two-day diplomatic visit, Chávez attended a private meeting with the Spanish head of state, José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, in which he declared that “Venezuela and Spain are in a new moment of friendship and cooperation.”

In a surprising move, Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos accused the previous Spanish government of former President José María Aznar of supporting the brief and unsuccessful coup attempt against Hugo Chávez in April, 2002. “Although it was never published, under the previous government, in an unprecedented move for Spanish diplomacy, the Spanish ambassador (in Caracas) received instructions to support the coup,” said Moratinos.

Moratinos added that the new socialist government was trying to improve its relations with Latin American countries, particularly those with strong democratic support, as is the case with Venezuela.

The Spanish Foreign Minister’s accusations reflected a view that Chávez himself had expressed for over two years. However, these were the first statements made by the Spanish government with respect to the subject. Chávez noted that the support given by Spain during the coup is in the past, emphasizing that the most important part of this visit to Spain was not the business negotiations it fostered but rather the political relations established.