George Bush has accused the Venezuelan president of “praising terrorists” and of squandering his country’s oil wealth to fuel a campaign against the US.
The US president criticised Hugo Chavez’s reaction to a recent Colombian raid on a Farc rebel base in Ecuador that sparked a week-long diplomatic crisis in Latin America.
“The president of Venezuela praised the terrorist leader as a good revolutionary and ordered his troops to the Colombian border,” Bush said.
The US leader said the move was “the latest step in a disturbing pattern of provocative behaviour by the regime in Caracas”.
Bush also reaffirmed his support for the Alavaro Uribe, the Colombian president, and warned that the region was facing a choice over its future.
“The region is facing an increasingly stark choice: to quietly accept the vision of the terrorists and the demagogues, or to actively support democratic leaders like President Uribe.
“I’ve made my choice. I’m standing with courageous leadership that believes in freedom and peace.”
Bush’s sharp criticism of Chavez came as the White House tried to portray the passage of a US-Colombia free trade agreement as critical to stem Chavez’s influence across Latin America.
Wednesday’s speech was made at the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“As it tries to expand its influence in Latin America, the regime claims to promote social justice.
“In truth its agenda amounts to little more than empty promises and a thirst for power,” Bush said.
“It has squandered its oil wealth in an effort to promote its hostile anti-American vision; it has left its own citizens to face food shortages while it threatens its neighbours,” he added.
Bush spoke just days after Latin American leaders agreed an end to a week-long crisis sparked by the cross-border raid inside Ecuador that killed a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) commander.
Ecuador also sent troops to the Colombian border and cut diplomatic ties with Bogota over the incident.
Colombia apologised and promised never to carry out such a raid again.
The recent crisis reflected a sharp political divide in South America, where Uribe, who has strong US backing, is opposed by Chavez and his allies who fiercely reject what they call US “imperialism”.
Chavez, who has called for a socialist revolution in Latin America to counter US influence, regularly criticises Bush and once called him the “devil” in a speech to the UN General Assembly.