Chavez hails visiting Mugabe

2004-02-27 08:40

Caracas, Venezuela - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez praised Zimbabwe's embattled President Robert Mugabe as a "freedom fighter," bestowing the visiting African leader with a replica of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar's sword.

"I give you a replica of liberator Simon Bolivar's sword," Chavez said Thursday after the two leaders signed an energy co-operation agreement.

"For you, who like Bolivar, took up arms to liberate your people. For you, who like Bolivar, are and will always be a true freedom fighter," Chavez said. "He continues, alongside his people, to confront the pretensions of new imperialists."

Mugabe, who was in Venezuela for the February 27-28 summit of the G-15 group of developing nations, grinned as he unsheathed the sword and swung it about. Mugabe came to power in 1980 after a seven-year bush war for black rule forced a peace conference and British-supervised elections in Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia.

Domination of the north

Earlier, Mugabe thanked his "brother President Chavez" for inviting him to Venezuela and stressed the importance of poor countries co-operating to build "integrated, strong" economies "able to resist the dominance of the North".

Mugabe, 80, faces mounting international pressure to step down after more than two decades in power. Zimbabwe is mired in its worst political and economic crisis since independence, with acute shortages of food and fuel. Opponents say the 2002 elections that re-elected Mugabe were marred by intimidation and vote rigging.

Chavez said he identified with Mugabe's struggles because he himself was fending alleged US-backed attempts to overthrow his government.

The leftist Chavez accuses the United States of being behind a failed 2002 coup and of funding groups now seeking a recall referendum on his rule. Washington denies the charges.

Conspiracies and coups

"We are confronting conspiracies and coups supported by Washington, whose government is once again charging with the fiercest flags of imperialism," Chavez said.

Relations between Venezuela and the United States are tense over Chavez's friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro and his opposition to US-led negotiations for a hemisphere-wide free trade zone. Washington was slow to condemn the 2002 coup attempt, initially blaming Chavez for his own downfall.