Venezuela, UK Capitals' Left-Wing Mayors Seek Closer Ties

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

London ( - As the controversial mayor of Caracas was forced to call off a planned visit to London, officials said talks were still underway about bringing the two cities closer together on a variety of projects.

Originally, London city officials said Caracas Mayor Juan Barreto, an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, had been due to arrive in the capital late this week.

In addition to appearing before a free concert in Trafalgar Square on Friday, Barreto had been scheduled to sign a "mutually beneficial friendship agreement" with London Mayor Ken Livingstone.

A statement from the left-wing mayor's office said that after two weeks of nearly continuous rain in Caracas, Barreto had been forced to cancel because hundreds of his citizens may need to be evacuated from areas prone to mud slides.

However, Barreto is also facing an outcry over orders issued by his office earlier this week to seize two prestigious golf courses in the center of the city.

Caracas officials said they would be taking over the Caracas Country Club and Valle Arriba golf club, two establishments patronized by the upper classes, in order to provide low-cost housing for the homeless of the city.

"It's shameful to see people playing golf and just right there in front of them is a shanty town," said Barreto on state television. "We are following the policies laid out by President Chavez ... to give a new social direction to the city so the city can be enjoyed by everyone."

Livingstone has long been a vocal supporter of Chavez, a left-wing populist, and hosted him during a visit to London in May. Both men are ardent critics of the Bush administration.

The London mayor is president of the Venezuela Information Center, a non-profit group whose stated aim is to correct distorted information about the country and to support "the right of the Venezuelan people to determine their own future free from external intervention."

During his visit, Chavez said that staff from London City Hall had been helping Caracas deal with traffic problems, and in return, Venezuela could possibly provide the poor of London with cheap heating oil during the winter.

In July, a leaked memorandum from the Venezuelan government published in the Miami Herald revealed that further talks had been held between the Greater London Authority and the South American nation.

In the memorandum, a second plan was outlined in which Venezuela would supply fuel for London buses, thus boosting the image of the Chavez government.

On Thursday, the brief statement from the mayor's office said that the two cities "are discussing a mutually beneficial friendship agreement" and that "it is envisaged that the cities would share best practice in a number of fields."

Neither the Venezuelan Embassy nor members of the delegation from Caracas would comment on the record.

On Thursday, Jairo Lugo, an expert in Venezuelan politics at the University of Stirling, said there were many differences between the two mayors.

Although Livingstone has a reputation as a left-wing firebrand, Lugo said that he had nonetheless forged a broad coalition of support in London that cut across social classes.

In contrast, Barreto -- like Chavez -- drew most of his support from the working class, which in turn regarded land reform as a pressing issue, Lugo said.

Lugo noted that Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel -- a member of the same political party as Barreto and Chavez -- is opposed to the forced purchase of the golf courses.

The mayor therefore had his hands full dealing not only with the outraged middle class, but also with elements in his party that wanted to move more slowly on land reform, Lugo said.

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