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Venezuela Defends Chavez After Spat With Spanish King


Venezuelan officials are blasting Spain's king after the monarch told President Hugo Chavez to "shut up" at the close of the Ibero-American summit in Santiago, Chile. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, the verbal spat stole the spotlight from the gathering of leaders from Latin America, Spain and Portugal.

The yearly Ibero-American summit is known for generating often-bland plenary statements, not heated verbal salvos between participants. Saturday, a speech by President Chavez in which he labeled former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar a "fascist" later prompted blunt words from an irate King Juan Carlos of Spain.

The king said, "Why do you not shut up?"

In Caracas Sunday, Vice President Jorge Rodriguez suggested the Spanish monarch may have forgotten that Latin America achieved its independence from Spain long ago, and said the king's words were "unacceptable".

He said, "Mr. Juan Carlos can treat his subjects in that fashion if they permit him to do so. But we Venezuelans are a free and sovereign people constructing our own future. No one can speak vulgar words to deny Venezuela's chief of state the right to speak. Nothing and no one will ever silence him [Chavez]."

President Chavez has long criticized former Prime Minister Aznar for joining with the United States in the 2003 invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. The current Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, also opposed Spain's participation in the Iraq campaign. But, speaking at the summit, he reminded Mr. Chavez that his predecessor was legitimately elected by the people of Spain -- and deserved to be spoken of with respect.

He said, "President Hugo Chavez, I believe there is a principle in dialogue and that is, to respect and to be respected, we must try not to disregard others. We can disagree entirely with someone's ideas or behavior without insulting them."

Mr. Chavez repeatedly tried to interrupt the Spanish leader, but his microphone was turned off. It was at that point that King Juan Carlos, seated a few meters away, leaned forward and uttered his now-famous exhortation to the Venezuelan leader.

The sharp words made headlines and have provoked commentary throughout the Spanish-speaking world and beyond. In a written statement published by Cuban state media, President Fidel Castro - who did not attend the summit - backed what he called President Chavez' "devastating criticisms" of Europe.

For his part, the Venezuelan leader has downplayed the controversy. Speaking with reporters, Mr. Chavez said he did not hear King Juan Carlos' outburst at the time. Mr. Chavez added that he never meant for his choice of words to offend anybody at the summit, but that he stood by those words nonetheless.

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