Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's counter-Bush tour chugged on to flood-ravaged Bolivia on Saturday, following up on millions of dollars in aid the leftist leader has pledged to cope with months of flooding in its eastern lowlands.
Chavez was to visit flooded areas in Bolivia's eastern lowlands, where a rainy season supercharged by El Nino has killed 51 people, driven thousands from their homes and triggered an outbreak of dengue fever.
The leftist Venezuelan leader, wearing an untucked red shirt in the blazing heat, kissed a Bolivian flag held by sailors in their dress whites after he disembarked Saturday at the airport in Trinidad, where miles of fetid waters for a month have surrounded the city.
While U.S. President George W. Bush travels to friendly Latin American nations to shore up relations with allies and highlight U.S. aid to the region, Chavez appears intent on spoiling the show by shadowing Bush's trip and saying at every turn that his country is doing more to help the region, especially its millions of poor people.
Bolivia President Evo Morales is a close Chavez ally and frequent critic of Bush.
He added that "the social movements in Sao Paulo, in Montevideo, are mobilizing against the presence of George Bush."
Chavez's tour started in Argentina, where he packed a soccer stadium for a Friday rally, during which he called Bush a "political cadaver," blasted U.S. policies as "imperialist" and told the crowd of 20,000 that the U.S. president's tour is a cynical attempt to divide Latin America.
In Trinidad, the Beni state capital and home to 90,000 residents, Chavez is expected to highlight that while the U.S. sent $1.5 million of aid to help Bolivia deal with the floods, Venezuela has pledged $15 million in aid, including a squadron of helicopters to deliver food to remote villages.
A Bolivian rainy season supercharged by the climate phenomenon El Nino has killed 49 people, left tens of thousands homeless, and triggered a spreading dengue outbreak.
Before leaving for Bolivia, Chavez said Saturday his meeting with leftist Argentina President Nestor Kirchner had been fruitful.
"We have taken a solid step toward strengthening the Caracas-Buenos Aires axis, which is strategic looking at the map. And of course from the point of view of an anti-imperialist act, I believe it has surpassed all expectations," he said.
In Bolivia, Chavez will be visiting an area sharply at odds with leftist President Evo Morales, his close ally.
Already the Trinidad mayor and Beni governor — complaining that Venezuelan aid workers do not answer to their authority — have said they will refuse to receive Chavez, the only foreign head of state ever to visit.
"We are grateful for the assistance of the Venezuelan people, but we're bothered by the intervention of Chavez in Bolivia," Trinidad Mayor Moises Shiriqui told The Associated Press on Thursday. "He's coming here for a political campaign."
Flood victims, for their part, say the state governor's office has been slow to distribute the foreign aid it has received.
Bush, after stops in Brazil and Uruguay, on Sunday heads to Colombia to meet with Alvaro Uribe — the most U.S.-friendly president in the region — and then continues to Guatemala. Chavez, meanwhile, plans to visit Haiti to discuss sending aid to the impoverished country.
In Bolivia, the populist Morales has strengthened ties to Venezuela and Cuba since taking office a year ago. Chavez has pledged more than $1 billion for Bolivian petroleum projects, community radio stations and even a factory to make tea from coca leaves.
In contrast, the U.S. military presence in Bolivia has all but disappeared. The Bush administration's 2008 budget proposal slashes U.S. aid to Bolivia by more than 20 percent, from $125 million to $98 million, part of a deep aid cut targeting much of Latin America.