Countries try to aid Venezuela

Published: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 10:54 p.m.
WASHINGTON - Officials from the United States and five other countries urged Venezuelans to stop political violence and inflammatory rhetoric as a new diplomatic effort began Friday to end a violent strike that has crippled oil production in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.
The newly formed "Friends of Venezuela" group also agreed to send high-level representatives to a meeting in Caracas next week to help find ways to break the political impasse.
The opposition called the strike almost two months ago to press demands that President Hugo Chavez resign or call early elections. Opponents say Chavez's leftist policies have undermined business in Venezuela; Chavez's supporters say the opposition wants to bring down a democratically elected president who enjoys strong support among the nation's many poor.
"The problem of Venezuela is a problem of great urgency that requires therefore that we act immediately," Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim, who chaired the meeting, told reporters afterward.
In a sign of U.S. interest in a diplomatic resolution, Secretary of State Colin Powell attended the start of the closed-door meeting at the Organization of American States that also included officials from Mexico, Chile, Spain and Portugal.
Powell said the diplomats should work with two proposals made by former President Carter. One proposal is for a recall vote on Chavez to be held in August. The other would be to amend the Venezuelan constitution to allow early elections this summer.
"The Carter proposals represent the best path available to the Venezuelans. They provide the badly needed basis on which both sides can bridge their differences on the immediate issues," Powell said, in a text released by the State Department.
Venezuela's foreign minister, Roy Chaderton, told reporters his country was open to proposals that follow the country's constitution. He also agreed that both sides need to lower the tone of the political rhetoric but said: "We do need guarantees also, because we have a very violent and irrational opposition."
Chaderton said he would like to see the Friends group expanded eventually to include other friendly nations. Amorim said a possible expansion was not discussed at the meeting.
Miguel Diaz, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the talks at the OAS were critical.
"If this doesn't pan out, I think Venezuela is left to its own devices," he said. "I'm not sure the Venezuelans themselves will be able to find their way through this crisis without major bloodshed."
The United States has approached the latest Venezuelan turmoil gingerly. The Bush administration has little regard for Chavez, who has visited Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and is a close friend of Cuban President Fidel Castro. But after stressing the importance of democracy to the region, it doesn't want to be seen as undermining a constitutionally elected government.
The administration received sharp criticism for appearing to support a coup attempt in April. It has said it opposes any change in Venezuela outside the constitution.
Chaderton said he viewed the United States as "a good friend."
Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue research group said the April coup has caused the United States to take "more of a hands-off posture" to Venezuela.
"That's not an answer because the chaos is continuing," he said. "The United States is one of the few actors that could positively affect the outcome of this."
While the United States is seen as being able to influence Venezuela's opposition leaders, Brazil's new government, led by leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is seen as potentially influential with Chavez.

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