The 1492 discovery of the Americas triggered a 150-year slaughter of native Indians by foreign conquerors who behaved "worse than Hitler", the populist president told a meeting in Caracas of representatives of Indian people from across the continent.

"Christopher Columbus was the spearhead of the biggest invasion and genocide ever seen in the history of humanity," he said.

Columbus Day on 12 October is celebrated as a holiday in the United States and several Latin American nations, but Chavez said it should be remembered as the "Day of Indian Resistance".

"We Venezuelans, we Latin Americans, have no reason to honour Columbus," he added.

Massacre

The Venezuelan leader said Spanish, Portuguese and other foreign conquerors had massacred South America's Indian inhabitants at an average rate of roughly "one every 10 minutes". He described Spanish conquistadors like Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro, as "worse than Hitler".

He said even the continent's geographical names, like America and Venezuela, were imposed by foreigners.

"Long live Sitting Bull!"

Hugo Chavez,
president of Venezuela

Chavez's opponents, who are seeking a referendum to try to vote him out of office, say his self-styled "revolution" in the world's fifth largest oil exporter is aimed at installing an anti-US communist system like the one in Cuba. Chavez says his brand of left-wing nationalism will make Venezuela more independent.

The Venezuelan leader hailed as heroes Indian chiefs who had fought against the invaders, such as Guaicaipuro who resisted the Spanish founders of Caracas, and American Indian chief Sitting Bull, who defeated US general George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

"Long live Sitting Bull!" Chavez declared, drawing applause from his audience, many of whom wore traditional native clothes and head-dresses.