Caracas (AP) – Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has signaled a preference in the U.S. presidential campaign by comparing Mitt Romney to his own challenger.
Chavez, who is up for re-election a month before U.S. President Barack Obama, has in recent weeks expressed a clear preference for the man currently in the White House.
In a campaign speech Saturday night, Chavez equated the agenda of his challenger, Henrique Capriles, with that of Romney, saying both men represent the callously selfish capitalist elite.
Chavez claims Capriles, a moderate former governor, is trying to trick Venezuelans into believing he genuinely cares about the poor, the core of Venezuelan president's constituency.
"I believe the person to best explain the loser's agenda isn't Barack Obama but rather Romney, because it's the extreme right-wing agenda that borders on the fascism of the United States," Chavez told tens of thousands of supporters in the western city of Maracaibo.
"In the end, it's the same project," Chavez said, referring to Obama as "a good guy."
He alleged that the 220,000 families he says his government has provided with homes risk losing them if Capriles wins, while banks would make obtaining credit impossible for lower-income homebuyers. Chavez also says Capriles would eliminate the social programs that have been a hallmark of his 13 years in office – a charge Capriles denies.
Chavez's comments follow Romney's criticism of an Obama statement July 11 regarding the relative danger to U.S. interests of Chavez's deepening of ties with Iran.
Obama said his "overall sense is that what Mr. Chavez has done over the past several years has not had a serious national security impact on us."
Romney responded by saying it was "simply naive" to think Chavez does not pose a threat to the United States.
Chavez denies his crusade to create a socialist Venezuela poses any threat to the United States, the chief purchaser of Venezuelan oil.
He said in a July 13 television interview that "today's Venezuela doesn't present any kind of threat to anyone."
In the same interview, Chavez said Obama "deep down is a good guy, if you remove him from the context of being president of an empire."
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, said he thinks U.S. voters generally perceive Chavez as a "nuisance" rather than a threat to U.S. national security.
"They believe Romney's more hardline stance will only boost up the verbal sparring with Chavez, and end up bolstering him, as has often been the case in the past."
Romney could make points, however, with conservative Cuban-Americans who despise Chavez's close friend Fidel Castro as well Venezuelan exiles concentrated in Florida, a tightly contested state in the U.S. presidential election.