U.S. President Barack Obama greets his Venezuela counterpart Hugo Chavez with a brotherly handshake before the opening ceremony of the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain April 17, 2009. Reuters
PORT OF SPAIN (AFP) — President Barack Obama defended on Sunday his amicable first encounter with Venezuelan leader and anti-US firebrand Hugo Chavez, which critics back home assailed as naiive and “irresponsible”.
“It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interest of the United States,” Obama told reporters at the close of a Summit of the Americas.
But, he stressed he still had concerns about Venezuela and Chavez’s often heated rhetoric.
“I have great differences with Hugo Chavez on matters of economic policy and matters of foreign policy,” Obama said.
“There have been instances in which we’ve seen Venezuela interfere with some of the countries that surround Venezuela in ways that I think are a source of concern,” he added.
Obama and Chavez met here Friday at the opening of a 34-nation Americas summit and photos of the encounter showed the US leader smiling as he shook the Venezuelan’s hand and patted him on the shoulder.
Chavez was said to have told Obama: “I shook hands with (former US president George W.) Bush with this hand eight years ago. I want to be your friend.”
Obama responded by thanking Chavez, the official said.
US officials confirmed the encounter, but said Obama had simply presented himself to Chavez with a “How are you?” and left after shaking hands.
An opposition lawmaker on Sunday said Obama’s handling of the meeting confirmed conservatives’ concerns that the Democratic president would not be tough enough on the United States’ adversaries.
“I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez,” said Republican Senator John Ensign on CNN Sunday.
“This is a person who is one of the most anti-American leaders in the entire world,” Ensign said, calling Chavez “a brutal dictator”.
“When you’re talking about the prestige of the United States and the presidency of the United States, you have to be careful who you’re seeing joking around with,” he said.
Obama said he’d heard such criticisms throughout his campaign for the US presidency and dismissed them as nonsense.
“The whole notion was that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness,” he said.
“The American people didn’t buy it. And there’s a good reason the American people didn’t buy it, it doesn’t make sense.”
Newspapers around the world ran the photo of the handshake with speculation that the long antagonism between Washington and Caracas might be overcome.
But Sunday Obama downplayed his interaction with Chavez as not particularly unique, noting conversations with other US critics, including Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
“I had meetings with all the leaders involved, including Ortega, who was the chair person of the Central American meeting,” he said.
“I had very cordial conversations with President Morales and I think it’s just that President Chavez is better at positioning the cameras,” he said.