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Hugo Chavez tells Barack Obama he wants to be friends

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The U.S. and Venezuelan leaders traded pleasantries before the Summit of the Americas in an unexpected and unscripted exchange.
MEXICO CITY, April 18 (RIA Novosti) - The U.S. and Venezuelan leaders traded pleasantries before the Summit of the Americas in an unexpected and unscripted exchange.

It was President Barack Obama who took the initiative at the opening of the summit on Friday, approaching his Venezuelan counterpart and shaking his hand before the two leaders headed toward their seats.

"I hailed George Bush with this hand eight years ago. Now I greet you. I want to be your friend," President Hugo Chavez told Obama, according to Venezuelan officials.

The Fifth Summit of the Americas, running until Sunday in Trinidad and Tobago, is Obama's first meeting with most Latin American leaders. Of the 35 North and South American countries, only the Cuban leadership is absent from the gathering, as the communist government was suspended from the Organization of American States in 1962.

Relations between the United States and Venezuela fell to an all-time low in September 2008 when Caracas expelled the U.S. ambassador as part of a diplomatic dispute between the United States and Chavez's ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Chavez has traditionally had tense relations with Washington. However, the United States remains the biggest importer of Venezuelan oil, the country's most important export.

On the eve of the regional summit an annual poll by the Latin American research center, CIMA, was published on the popularity ratings of leaders attending the summit. Some 12,000 people were polled from 19 Latin American countries.

According to the survey, Obama emerged as the most popular leader with the approval of 70% of respondents, whereas Chavez was the most unpopular with 28%.

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