(Updates with remarks from presidential palace)
PORT OF SPAIN, April 17 (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday greeted and shook hands with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez during an impromptu meeting with the anti-U.S. leader at the Summit of the Americas.
Photographs released by the Venezuelan government showed Chavez, a fierce foe of former President George W. Bush, smiling and clasping hands with Obama at the start of the summit of Latin American and Caribbean leaders in Trinidad.
“I greeted Bush with this hand eight years ago; I want to be your friend,” Chavez told Obama, according to a Venezuelan presidential press office statement.
Chavez, a staunch ally of Cuba, had became one of the Bush’s administrations most strident critics. In March, he called Obama at best an “ignoramus” after the U.S. leader said Chavez obstructed progress in Latin America.
Ties between Washington and Caracas have frayed under Chavez, who often accuses U.S. officials of trying to topple him. Chavez expelled the U.S. envoy to Caracas in September in a dispute over U.S. activities in Venezuelan ally Bolivia.
Former soldier Chavez says socialist revolution can counter U.S. free-market policies in South America and he has become a standard-bearer for anti-U.S. sentiment in the region. But Washington has branded him a threat to regional stability. (Reporting by Patrick Markey; Editing by Eric Walsh)