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Venezuelan Leader Blasts US Preparedness for Katrina

Venezuela's president says the Bush administration has shown it can plan for war, but not for the well being of the people of the United States during a natural disaster. President Hugo Chavez spoke at length in Caracas about the devastation of the U.S. Gulf Coast in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

President Chavez says it has been painful to watch the suffering in New Orleans and other areas affected by Katrina. The Venezuelan leader spoke on "Alo Presidente," or "Hello President," a weekly program on state-run television where the president speaks virtually uninterrupted for four-to-five hours.

Mr. Chavez said, "The U.S. government took no precautions, knowing that New Orleans is a city below sea level. The government evacuated no one. How many thousands died that could have been evacuated by air, land or sea? Not one ship was mobilized, not one helicopter, before the hurricane."

He then continued in English:

"Mr. Bush on vacation. On vacation in Crawford [Texas, during the storm]," Mr. Chavez says.

The Bush administration has weathered strong criticism domestically of both its preparations for Katrina and its response to the disaster. But most foreign leaders have been circumspect on the question of the administration's performance, preferring to offer condolences and, in some instances, assistance for hurricane victims.

President Chavez has instructed Venezuela's state-owned oil corporation in the United States, Citgo, to provide fuel at a reduced cost to U.S. hurricane victims and the poor. Mr. Chavez has urged Citgo's top executive, Felix Rodriguez, to make sure Venezuelan assistance reaches those who need it most in the United States.

The Venezuelan leader said he felt comfortable criticizing President Bush, noting that Washington has been critical of his own administration on questions of human rights, respect for democracy and other issues. Mr. Chavez has repeatedly accused the United States of planning to assassinate him, and consistently rails against capitalism and what he terms American imperialism.

But political analyst Ricardo Sucre Heredia, who teaches political science at Venezuela's Central University, says most people in the country are uncomfortable with the war of words between Caracas and Washington.

Mr. Sucre says, "The people do not like this conflict. A recent poll showed 76 percent rejecting Venezuela's confrontation with the United States."

Venezuela has had its own natural disasters to contend with. In 1999, massive mudslides swept away several communities outside Caracas, killing an estimated 20,000 people.