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Hugo Chavez visited Hickory in 2001

By Chris Grandstaff
Staff Writer

Editors’ note: The following story originally appeared in the Observer April 24, 2001.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made one U.S. stop on the way back from the weekend Summit of the Americas conference in Quebec: Hickory.

Chavez spent two days with U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger, his friend of several years, before speaking to the media on Monday about topics ranging from education to Fidel Castro and baseball. Chavez said a relationship between Hickory’s large furniture industry and the resources of Venezuela could create an economic bond between the two communities.

“I am taking back with me an idea that we should create a cooperative agreement between Hickory and my native state,” Chavez said through an interpreter.

Chavez also said Hickory could soon become the sister city of an unnamed Venezuelan town.

The relationship between Ballenger, a Republican who represents the staunchly conservative 10th District, and Chavez, a friend and supporter of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, seems unlikely.

“I am a very good friend of Fidel’s,” Chavez said. “The last time we played baseball they beat us 13-2. He said I better switch to chess.”

But Ballenger, also the chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of International Relations, met Chavez on a trip to Venezuela several years ago, and the two “hit it off,” the congressman said. Ballenger and his wife, Donna, have visited Venezuela several times since then and saw this as the perfect opportunity to play host.

Ballenger enticed the Venezuelan president with a letter describing Hickory as the essence of America, and Chavez accepted.

“I got kind of teed off about one of the statements he made about Fidel Castro saying how great he was, “ Ballenger said. “So I wrote him a letter saying, ‘You keep talking about the great society of Fidel Castro and all you see of the U.S. is New York, Washington and Miami.’

“I told him that’s not the United States. If you want to see the free enterprise and entrepreneurism, why don’t you come to Hickory, North Carolina.”

Chavez had dinner with the Ballengers at their home, toured several area businesses, including Ballenger’s own Plastic Packaging Inc., and visited Community Ridge Day Care, which serves working parents in the area.

Chavez said the type of capitalist industry in the city influenced him, and he will take back an ideology as well as a pair of baseball socks made for him at Catawba County Community College.

“We’ve seen Cass’ business; we spoke with his workers,” Chavez said. “This should be the idea of capitalism.”

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