Brazil's Lula defends Chavez as referendum nears

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva attends a meeting at his office in Brasilia, November 22, 2007. REUTERS/Jamil Bittar

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defended Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as the democratic choice of his people on Sunday, a week before a vote on ending term limits on Chavez’s presidency.

“Every country determines the political regime it wants,” Lula said in an interview with the O Globo daily published on Sunday. Lula has a leftist background, but is much more moderate than Chavez, a close ally of Communist Cuba and Washington antagonist.

“Venezuela’s ... presidential mandate is the problem of the Venezuelan people. Brazil is interested in having relations between the Brazilian state and the Venezuelan state,” Lula said, calling for more Brazilian investment in the neighboring country.

Regarding Venezuela’s frequent tensions with Washington, Lula said it was paramount to preserve peace and tranquility in Latin America and said he had raised the issue with U.S. President George W. Bush.

“There is no risk with Chavez, there is no risk with Bolivia,” he said, referring to Chavez’ leftist ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Asked about an apparent swing in voters’ intentions after a poll on Saturday in Venezuela showed Chavez losing his lead before the referendum, Lula told O Globo he believed Chavez would respect the outcome. “If he wins - great, if he loses - great. He will comply with the result,” Lula said.

Chavez, who would have to leave office in 2013 if the law is not changed, was re-elected in a landslide a year ago with huge support among poor Venezuelans who benefit from his spending of oil revenues on social programs.

As for Brazil’s presidency, Lula reiterated his opposition to a possibility of a third term and to re-election in general. “... everyone knows I’m against re-election, that I prefer one five-year mandate,” he said. Now, Brazil’s president can be re-elected to two consecutive four-year terms.

Reporting by Andrei Khalip, editing by Patricia Zengerle