June 13, 2009 / 12:22 AM / 10 years ago

Chavez, Ortega chide Obama over "stuck" Latam policy

BASSETERRE, St. Kitts (Reuters) - The presidents of Venezuela and Nicaragua, both fierce critics of U.S. policy, on Friday accused President Barack Obama of failing to deliver on his promise to make a new start in ties with Latin America.

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega attends a meeting at the 6th PetroCaribe Summit, outside Basseterre, June 12, 2009. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, both staunch allies of Cuba’s communist leadership, made the criticism while attending a summit in St. Kitts and Nevis of the Venezuelan-backed energy alliance PetroCaribe.

Chavez, who told Obama at a Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in April “I want to be your friend,” said the new U.S. president was not making good on his public commitment to change the way Washington deals with Latin America.

“Obama should carry out what he said, but it’s not happening,” Chavez told reporters after the summit concluded.

The Venezuelan president, whose oil-exporting country remains a leading energy supplier to the United States, was a virulent critic of what he called the “imperialist” policies of Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush.

“It’s the same old empire. Let’s hope that Obama has the courage, the capacity and the support to dismantle that empire,” Chavez said. He also rejected U.S. allegations that his government was limiting freedom of expression by pursuing media critics, calling this view “a great cynicism.”

“If there’s no respect, there’s nothing,” he said.

Earlier, Nicaragua’s leftist leader, Ortega, accused Obama’s administration of being “stuck in the past” in its policies toward his country and Cuba.

Nicaragua and Cuba belong to the 18-nation PetroCaribe alliance created by Chavez in 2005 that groups OPEC member Venezuela with oil-importing Caribbean and Central America states, allowing them to buy Venezuelan oil on easier terms.

While most PetroCaribe leaders present used the one-day meeting in St. Kitts to praise Venezuela’s oil support for the economic and social development of their countries, Ortega made a point of attacking U.S. strategy in Latin America.

‘GOOD INTENTIONS’

He said Obama, despite displaying good intentions, appeared to be repeating hostile policies established by predecessors like Bush and Ronald Reagan toward regional governments Washington disapproved of, including Nicaragua and Cuba.

“We’ve all recognized in President Obama a man of good intentions, but he’s caught in a system, which by its own nature is expansionist, interventionist,” Ortega said.

He criticized the United States for canceling more than $60 million in assistance to Nicaragua this week.

The Millennium Challenge Corp, a U.S. taxpayer-funded operation set up by former President Bush to fight poverty in developing nations, said it took the decision because of problems in local elections last year in Nicaragua.

“President Obama is repeating Reagan’s policy by cutting aid to Nicaragua,” Ortega said.

Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla and Cold War-era foe of the United States, first ruled Nicaragua after taking power in a 1979 leftist Sandinista revolution. He won a 2006 election to return to rule again.

Ortega also criticized the Obama administration for maintaining a 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, although Obama has eased some aspects of the sanctions.

“They are stuck in the past,” the Nicaraguan leader said.

Obama has offered a “new beginning” in relations with Cuba, but has called on its leaders to reciprocate by freeing detained dissidents and opening up political freedoms.

He has made clear he intends to keep the embargo in place until Havana shows clear signs of making reforms.

Cuban President Raul Castro, who has said he is ready to talk with Washington, did not attend the PetroCaribe summit.

Caribbean leaders, whose small states receive significant economic relief through the deferred and low-interest payment terms they enjoy for their oil purchases under PetroCaribe, were unanimous in their praise of the energy alliance.

“There is no devil in PetroCaribe,” said Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit.

Earlier, Chavez vowed to strengthen PetroCaribe, despite the decline in oil prices over the last year.

The drop has squeezed the income of Venezuela, South America’s largest oil producer, with a declared output of just over 3 million barrels per day (bpd). It supplies 121,000 bpd to PetroCaribe states and 92,000 bpd separately to Cuba.

Editing by Todd Eastham

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