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Venezuela's President Chavez leads protests against Bush tour

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By Bill Cormier -- Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) - Nearly 20,000 fans gathered at a stadium in Buenos Aires - not to watch soccer, but to hear Hugo Chavez bash U.S. President George W. Bush.

And the Venezuelan leader didn't disappoint.

For two hours on March 9, Chavez heaped scorn on the American president. He called him a ''political cadaver'' and said Bush was on his way to becoming ''cosmic dust.'' At one point, Bush was the ''little gentleman from the North.'' At another, he was an ''imperial boss'' who had no business in the ''heroic lands of our America.''

Shouts of ''Gringo go home!'' erupted in the stands.

''We are here to show our support of Chavez and our repudiation of Bush and imperialism,'' said Claudio Hernandez, a Chilean in the crowd. ''We are against Bush because of his oil wars and his other policies, which go against the people of the world.''

As Chavez railed against U.S. policy in Argentina, Bush arrived in neighboring Uruguay, the second stop on a five-nation swing that began earlier that day in Brazil.

There, too, anti-American sentiment was running high.

Bush demonstrators scuffled with bystanders and shattered windows at an American fast-food restaurant in Montevideo, the capital.

''Exterminate the Empire!'' a masked woman spray-painted on a business facade.

But so far, the biggest protest against Bush's visit has been in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where riot police fired tear gas and clubbed some protesters after some 6,000 people held a largely peaceful march on March 8. Brazil's streets were calmer the next day, though 150 protesters burned a Bush effigy with a swastika on its shirt and a Hitler mustache penciled on its face.

In Asuncion, Paraguay, a few dozen pro-Chavez supporters

turned up outside the U.S. Embassy March 9 to denounce Bush - even though the U.S. leader was not stopping there.

Police put down violent protests in Colombia in advance of Bush's visit there, and in Guatemala, Mayan leaders said Indian priests will purify the sacred archaeological site of Iximche to eliminate ''bad spirits'' after Bush's visits.

''That a person like [Bush], with the persecution of our migrant brothers in the United States, with the wars he has provoked, is going to walk in our sacred lands, is an offense for the Mayan people,'' Guatemalan activist Juan Tiney said.

Protesters also demonstrated March 9 outside the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, where Bush wrapped up his trip.

In Buenos Aires, Chavez said he didn't intend to ''sabotage'' Bush's visit. It was just a coincidence. He said that he and his rival were touring the region at the same time.

Chavez is using Venezuela's oil wealth to reach out to ordinary Latin Americans and to court other leftist leaders.

While Bush was in Colombia, Chavez planned also to be in the Andean region with another of his Bolivian proteges, President Evo Morales.

And as Bush headed to Guatemala in Central America, Chavez toured the nearby Caribbean to meet leaders in Haiti on March 12.

Chavez told his sympathizers in Argentina that Bush's five-nation swing would fail to improve America's image and dismissed his pledges of U.S. aid as a cynical attempt to ''confuse'' Latin Americans: ''I believe one has to give the president of the United States a medal for hypocrisy because he has said he is concerned about poverty in Latin America.''

The Venezuelan leader said it was U.S. free market policies that had impoverished the region, along with Washington's tolerance of right-wing dictatorships in decades past.