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Tony Blair and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have at least two things in common: they were both democratically elected and have been in power for around the same length of time.

Journalist and Latin America expert Richard Gott drew the comparison in front of a packed crowd at the launch of the Venezuela Information Centre on Wednesday night. He might have added: "The similarity stops there."

Despite ongoing US attempts to discredit and oust Chavez, the former military teacher¹s legacy in Venezuela is sure to last longer than Blair’s devout implementation of the failed neoliberal religion on these shores.

In fact, Chavez and his supporters are ahead of the game. As Gott said, "The results of neoliberalism in South America are much the same as here: the poor get poorer and the rich get richer."

Gott argued that the Venezuelan government isn¹t doing much more than correcting injustice by implementing traditional social democrat policies, but this is still far too radical for the United States.

To applause, the meeting¹s chairman Rodney Bickerstaffe said that it is now "vital that Venezuela rises higher up the international agenda. We don’t want to see Venezuela being the next target for the US."

Washington fears political independence in Latin America and the development of an alternative to neoliberalism that could threaten its dominance.

Chavez gives the lie to Thatcher’s myth that "there is no other way," explained Venezuelan-based academic Steve Ellner, another of the high-quality speakers assembled on the night. "Anti-neoliberalism is possible and Chavez is proving it."

In a no-nonsense 20-minute presentation, Julia Buxton of Bradford University’s Department of Peace Studies set out a watertight case for the establishment of the information centre, whose mission statement is to present accurate information on the situation in the country.

"There needs to be broad-based objective analysis," she said. "Disinformation is a central tactic of the opposition." She explained that, while popular support for the corrupt former political status quo is limited, it had been given higher profile because of US funding through the National Endowment for Democracy, an NGO set up by Ronald Reagan to spread the US concept of "democracy" in strategic regions.

"The big concern now, as we approach the 2006 presidential election, is that the US will attempt to destabilise the situation through non-traditional tactics," she added. TUC deputy general secretary Frances O’Grady and UNISON deputy leader Keith Sonnet expressed the movement’s determination to support Venezuelan sovereignty. Ms. O’Grady pledged not only "to listen and to provide practical support" but to strengthen links with the UNT, a new independent trade union centre in the country, and oppose attempts to block its representation at the International Labour Organisation.

"We will resist any attempt to turn the ILO into a political football," she said. "We may be simple trade unionists, but we are not naive."

Mr Sonnet pointed to past US-backed bloodshed against progressive governments in Latin America and British double standards in supporting brutality in the region. "We can’t sit back and allow what happened to Allende and others to happen in Venezuela," he said. The Venezuelan Information Centre plans regular meetings and bulletins to give an objective picture of the situation in the country. Go to www.vicuk.org for more details.

Morning Star