VENICE Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy who once called George W. Bush "the devil," said on Monday he hoped to be able to work more closely with President Barack Obama.
The leftist 55-year-old leader added in an interview in Italy that despite the global economic crisis and signs of a slowdown in growth in Venezuela, he did not expect his country to fall into recession.
Chavez was in Venice for the world premiere of "South of the Border," director Oliver Stone's sympathetic portrait of a leader he says has championed the poor and who has been unfairly demonized by the U.S. media.
"I have no reason to call him (Obama) the devil, and I hope that I am right," Chavez told reporters in Venice.
"With Obama we can talk, we are almost from the same generation, one can't deny that Obama is different (from Bush). He's intelligent, he has good intentions and we have to help him."
Stone's documentary argues that the economy has grown under Chavez's rule and poverty levels have fallen sharply, all without the help of bailout loans from foreign lenders.
Asked in an interview with Reuters whether the fact that Venezuela's economy shrank for the first time in more than five years during the second quarter of 2009 could mean austerity measures ahead, Chavez replied:
"There is no recession in Venezuela. There has been a slight slowdown in growth but that is something logical because of the great worldwide recession in capitalism.
"We have taken some steps but unemployment continues to fall and production continues to rise. Venezuela has been affected by the crisis but has not and will not go into recession," added the president, who sat next to Stone.
"REAL DEMOCRATIC MODEL"
Chavez also said his democratic credentials remained intact despite concerns over moves to crack down on the independent media and political opposition.
Thousands of people took to the streets of Caracas over the weekend to voice their opposition to the president, who has been in power for a decade and says he needs another 10 years to pursue his socialist reforms.
"In Venezuela, no television channel has been closed despite the fact that in many cases the television channels supported a coup d'etat," he said.
"Noam Chomsky ... was asked in an interview what would happen if Fox News or CNN had supported a coup against a president. Chomsky replied that not only would those channels have been closed, but their owners would have been sent to the electric chair.
"I'm entirely dedicated to building a real democratic model in Venezuela. As Abraham Lincoln said, what is democracy? It is not the system by which a rich minority exploits the people. It is government by the people and for the people."
Stone's film includes clips of U.S. news channels casting Chavez as a threat akin to that posed by al Qaeda.
"The caricature compares me to Hitler and Mussolini, that is just laughable," he said. "It shows a lack of respect to the intelligence of the human being and of society."
(Additional reporting by Daniel Flynn in Rome; Editing by Jon Hemming)