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COLUMN: A run-in with the man who called the president the Devil

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By VINCE LUECKE
Editor

I met Hugo Chávez once. Well, I didn’t as much meet him as quickly shake his hand while he walked down a wide plaza.

It was one of those sudden encounters we sometimes have with celebrities that didn’t mean much to me then but certainly came to mind after the Venezuelan leader’s death last week.

It was 2005 and I was in Uruguay on vacation. It was my second trip to the county and I was looking forward to exploring its farming communities. Uruguay is a small country with educated, friendly people. Its capital city, Montevideo, is a modern, bustling city. It’s dirty and gritty in places, but most cities are.

My visit coincided with the inauguration of the country’s president and the capital was abuzz with excitement, probably because of the celebrities in town rather than a new president. I was staying in a decent hotel in one of the central plazas of Montevideo. The crown prince of Spain flew in for the inauguration festivities the night I arrived and was staying at the best hotel in town. His arrival drew hundreds of people, mainly women, who wanted a look at the dapper prince. I stood in the crowd for about half an hour before a long black car ferried the prince to his door.

He greeted a few fans along a barricade the police had set up. A few girls gave him bouquets of flowers and he waved and promptly went inside, followed by his big entourage.

It was a few hours later, while walking back to my hotel after a late steak dinner and a few powerful Uruguayan beers, that I came across a throng of people following a squatty man with dark hair.

It was Hugo Chávez.

He was walking through the plaza, with only a couple of police officers by his side. He shook hands with everyone he passed. I joined in the impromptu receiving line. I put out my hand. He shook it quickly but with gusto.

There was no throng of police or metal barricade. Just people shaking hands with a nation’s president who, while a socialist and not a great friend of the U.S., didn’t want to be separated from society.

To be honest, I didn’t know who the man was at the time. I knew it wasn’t the prince of Spain.

The prince was younger and I’m sure his keepers would have never let him to wander about on foot.

I saw Chávez’s photo in the newspaper at the airport on Inauguration Day.

He had come for the swearing in, but unlike the proper and protected prince, he mixed with the commoners on the street.

I saw a jet at the airport painted in the same blue and white colors of Air Force One. But this jet was far smaller than the president’s. Elaine Chao, who was then U.S. Secretary of Labor, had traveled to Uruguay and was the official U.S. representative to the inauguration.

I also saw the crown prince’s jet, decked out in the colors of Spain.

I was flying home and wasn’t that interested in Hugo Chávez or his policies. He went on to battle George Bush and tried to rally the nations of South America against what he saw as U.S. imperialism.

Chávez had a way with words and once famously called Bush “the devil” and while speaking from the same podium used by the president, complained of the smell of sulphur left behind.

It was political drama.

I missed other chances at meeting famous people. I could have attended a Mass in Germany presided over by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI but arrived late and was turned away at the door because the church was packed.

I did see Garrison Keillor walking the streets of downtown Louisville a couple of years ago during a meeting of newspaper publishers and editors.

Then News Publisher Kevin Lashbrook noticed Keillor’s red sneakers and ran back, introduced himself as a big fan. I listen to Prairie Home Companion sometimes and admire his folksy style.

That’s about it as far as my run-ins with celebrities. Perhaps there will be more in the years ahead.

What’s Wrong with You Litterers?

Though I have not traveled the road recently, Sheriff’s Deputy Richard Myers told me about the amount of junk dumped along Sycamore Road.

Also known as Shephard’s Hatchery Road, it has long been a favorite spot for people too lazy to find a proper place to dispose of litter.

Litterbugs make us all look bad. If you see someone in the act of illegal dumping, call police. There’s nothing dirty about turning someone in who makes us all look … well, dirty.