CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez denied on Friday that Venezuela was a threat to anyone, after U.S. presidential hopeful Mitt Romney criticized Barack Obama for playing down the risk posed by the socialist leader.
Obama told a Spanish-language television station in an interview screened this week that Chavez’s actions over recent years had not had a serious impact on the national security of the United States.
Romney said Obama’s comments were “stunning and shocking” and showed a pattern of weakness in the Democratic president’s foreign policy.
In an interview with a local Venezuelan television station on Friday, Chavez dismissed the allegations he posed any danger.
“The Venezuela of today is no threat to anyone,” he said.
“It has all been a hoax by the imperialists and global far right: that uranium is being enriched in Venezuela, that we’re setting up missiles here, that we’re supporting terrorism.”
Whenever there were efforts to improve relations between Washington and Caracas, Chavez said, they were criticized by powerful “snipers” who issued threats in the U.S. media.
Chavez, whose stridently anti-Washington politics are highly popular in his OPEC nation, has expanded ties with Iran while the United States and other nations have increased their pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program.
Iran denies Western charges it wants to build nuclear weapons. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Caracas in January, he and Chavez lavished praise on each other, mocked U.S. disapproval and joked about having an atomic bomb.
Late last year Obama told a Venezuelan newspaper the United States had no intention of intervening in Venezuela’s foreign relations - but he believed the government’s ties with Iran and Cuba had not benefited the Venezuelan people.
With both Chavez and Obama running for re-election this year, Chavez struck a conciliatory tone, saying the latest comments by his U.S. counterpart needed to seen in context.
“Obama is campaigning. He’s a candidate. I hope the real revolutionaries understand well. I think that Barack Obama - aside from ‘the president’ - is a good guy,” he said.
Chavez is trying to appeal to the third of Venezuelans who may not have decided yet who to vote for in the October 7 election, when he will seek a new six-year term despite undergoing three cancer operations in Cuba over the last year.
That means being more moderate. Chavez also cited his friendship with Juan Manuel Santos, the conservative leader of neighboring Colombia, as proof of his benign influence on Latin American affairs.
“The president of Colombia has said it, twice: Chavez is a factor of stability for the region, a factor of peace, a facilitator of integration. That is Chavez’s role.”
Obama’s campaign team has accused Romney, the likely Republican nominee in the November 6 election, of playing into the Venezuelan president’s hands by giving him the international attention he wanted.
Chavez frequently lauds Fidel Castro’s communist-led revolution in Cuba, and Romney’s comments could cheer Cuban-American voters in Florida, where many oppose Castro and Chavez.
There was a window to improve ties between Caracas and Washington after Obama took office in 2009 and promised more engagement with foes. Chavez toned down his tirades against the “Yankee empire” and shook hands with Obama at a summit.
But within months, Chavez said the U.S. leader was disillusioning the world by following his predecessor George W. Bush’s foreign policies, and he cranked up his rhetoric again.
On Friday, Chavez said Obama’s troubles began with that handshake. “They fell on him: saying he’s a socialist, a communist. ... The personal war against Obama started, including looking for a way to get him out of office by any means.”
Additional reporting by Diego Ore; editing by Mohammad Zargham and Todd Eastham