TOKYO (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Tuesday welcomed a call by U.S. President Barack Obama for a 21st century free of conflict and nuclear arms in the latest sign he could be looking to reconcile with Washington after a decade of tension.
The leftist Cuba ally had offered mixed signals about the arrival of Obama, sometimes praising his administration while at other times mocking him as the leader of an “empire” or calling him an “ignoramus.”
But Chavez, speaking in Tokyo, said his animosity had been directed against the “insane and immoral” administration of George W. Bush and not the United States, which he said was the world’s biggest recipient of Venezuelan investment.
“We have no bias against the current administration. We’re simply observing and evaluating now,” he told a news conference.
He dismissed Obama’s initial comments that Chavez was exporting terrorism and obstructing progress in Latin America as those belonging to “someone who has just arrived and is not very well acquainted” with certain realities.
“So in the framework of respect, anything is possible: closer ties, including a possible dialogue,” Chavez said.
“But not with the government of Bush,” he stormed, saying that relations with the United States over the previous eight years had soured because of Bush’s attempt to pull Venezuela away from socialism and Cuba.
Signs have also emerged that icy relations between the United States and Cuba could thaw after a U.S. congressional delegation met with Cuban President Raul Castro on Monday to explore ways to end five decades of animosity.
Chavez and a delegation of Venezuelan ministers were in Tokyo to sign a broad agreement with Japan to develop oil and gas projects in the Latin American nation — projects agreed on Monday that the president said were worth $33.5 billion in investments for Venezuela.
The delegation is due later on Tuesday in Beijing, where Chavez said he expected to secure another $4 billion of funding for various investments.
Chavez and Obama are both expected to attend the April 17-19 Americas Summit in Trinidad and Tobago.
“Obama said about 48 hours ago that the 20th century was a century of conflicts, and that the new century should be one of peace. That was a good statement,” Chavez said, hastily adding that he and his mentor, Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro, had been making a similar declaration “for ages.”
Not to be upstaged by the United States, Chavez chastised the country for using atomic weapons on Japan at the end of World War Two — an act for which he said Washington owed an apology.
“As far as I know, there’s been no apology yet, and it’s pending,” he said.
But he added: “The fact that the president of the United States — the biggest power in the world and the only country to ever use a nuclear weapon against another nation — has called for a nuclear-free world is very encouraging.
Japan is ambivalent about atomic bombs, being the only nation to have suffered nuclear attack, but since World War Two has benefited from the protection of the nuclear-armed United States.
Asked about North Korea’s weekend rocket launch, which many analysts believe was a test of a long-range ballistic missile, Chavez took a cautious stance.
“With respect to this, we share Russia’s position of having patience and prudence,” he said.
Editing by Dean Yates