* Both men seeking re-election in imminent ballots
* Socialist Chavez has kind words for U.S. leader
* Political ties remain strained despite oil trade
By Helen Murphy
CARACAS, Sept 30 (Reuters) - With both presidents facing tight re-election fights, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez gave a surprise endorsement to Barack Obama on Sunday - and said the U.S. leader no doubt felt the same.
“I hope this doesn’t harm Obama, but if I was from the United States, I’d vote for Obama,” the socialist Chavez said of a man he first reached out to in 2009 but to whom he has since generally been insulting.
Chavez is running for a new six-year term against opposition challenger Henrique Capriles, while Obama seeks re-election in November against Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Venezuela’s election is next weekend.
“Obama is a good guy ... I think that if Obama was from Barlovento or some Caracas neighborhood, he’d vote for Chavez,” the president told state TV, referring to a poor coastal town known for the African roots of its population.
Chavez is one of the world’s most strident critics of Washington and his 14 years in office have been characterized by diplomatic spats and insults at the White House.
He called former U.S. President George W. Bush a “drunk” and the “devil.” After an initial overture to Obama came to nothing, he said the new president had disappointed progressives the world over and was the “shame” of Africans.
But Chavez was back in a conciliatory mood in a TV interview with friend and former vice president Jose Vicente Rangel.
“After our triumph and the supposed, probable triumph of President Obama, with the extreme right defeated here and there, I hope we could start a new period of normal relations with the United States,” he said.
“Obama recently said something very rational and fair ... that Venezuela is no threat to the interests of the United States,” he added.
Since coming to office, Chavez has projected himself as the head of a global “anti-imperialist” movement inspired by his friend and ideological mentor Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Relations with Washington improved briefly after Obama took office in January 2009 and promised more engagement with Latin America. Chavez toned down his tirades against the “Yankee empire” and shook hands with the new U.S. leader at a summit.
But months later, he accused Obama of sticking to Bush’s foreign policies and capitalist agenda, and the tirade against the United Sates began again.
Despite the ideological gulf between Washington and Caracas, both sides take a pragmatic approach when it comes to business, with OPEC member Venezuela remaining the United States’ fourth biggest crude supplier.