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Chavez to Obama: Let's be friends

"I want to be your friend," tough-talking Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told US President Barack Obama yesterday, when both men came face to face minutes before the formal opening of the Fifth Summit of the Americas at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Port of Spain.

The two leaders, whose countries have had strained relations over the past few years, shook hands as they met in the lobby area of the hotel, just moments before the opening ceremony.

The Venezuelan Communications and Information Ministry said in a press release that President Obama "got closer to extend a greeting to him".

"They shook hands in an historic greeting after several years of tension during the (George) Bush administration, when relations between Washington and Caracas had deteriorated," the release added.

It also said that Chavez, an outspoken critic of the United States, which he often refers to as "the empire", told Obama of "his desire that relations between both nations change".

"With this same hand eight years ago I greeted Bush. I want to be your friend," the release quoted the Venezuelan president as saying as he shook Obama's hands.

According to the ministry, the US president expressed his gratitude to the Venezuelan leader.

The Venezuelan president expelled the US ambassador to Venezuela in September last year and immediately recalled his ambassador from Washington.

Chavez has frequently said that he was prepared to "reset" relations between his country and the United States based on "mutual respect and equality".

On Thursday, the Venezuelan leader hosted his own Summit of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, known as ALBA in Spanish, an initiative to the stalled US-endorsed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

ALBA members include Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela. St Vincent and the Grenadines has also requested membership in ALBA.

That meeting ended with ALBA member states signing a joint declaration which described the draft declaration of the Fifth Summit of the Americas as "unacceptable" for failing to address the world financial crisis and "unfairly" excluding Cuba from the meeting here in Port of Spain.

"We believe that there is no consensus to adopt the draft declaration and we propose an in-depth debate on its contents," said Chavez, a strong critic of the United States.

At the opening session of the Fifth Summit of the Americas, Obama said his government would like to see "engagement" between the United States and the countries of the region based on "common interest".