View Full Version : U.S. - Venezuelan Tensions Boiling

06-04-2005, 03:58 PM
U.S.-Venezuelan tensions boiling



CARACAS - When President Bush hosted a top Venezuelan political activist at the White House earlier this week, he sparked yet another clash in Washington's already strained relations with leftist President Hugo Chávez.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodr^guez called Bush's meeting with Mar^a Corina Machado a ''provocation'' that could affect bilateral relations. Pro-government Venezuelan legislators were so hostile in a meeting on antidrug efforts that the U.S. ambassador and a U.S. congressman had to duck out.

The dispute likely will erupt again when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to address the issue of Venezuela Monday at an Organization of American States gathering in Fort Lauderdale. The three-day OAS conference begins Sunday.

''It gives the impression that the Bush administration is supporting [Machado] and not the government,'' Nelson Dávila, a Venezuelan Foreign Ministry official, told The Herald.

Machado is the head of Súmate, the pro-democracy group that helped organize a failed recall referendum against Chávez last year. An engineer, she faces up to 16 years in prison for allegedly conspiring against the state by accepting $31,000 from the U.S. government, under the auspices of the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, to finance Súmate's activities, which the government says are partisan, not independent.

''Part of our work is to bring attention to the very critical situation in Venezuela,'' Machado told The Herald Friday. ``Thousands of people are being intimidated for thinking differently from the government.''

Chávez has repeatedly accused the Bush administration of trying to topple and even assassinate him. He has won two presidential elections, but his domestic critics accuse him of stacking the courts and the national electoral board and passing laws that inhibit freedom of speech.

For Machado, the Bush meeting provided another opportunity to focus foreign attention on issues in Venezuela that many say imperil democracy.

''President Bush wanted to know, firsthand, the vision of Venezuelan citizens,'' she said in a telephone interview from Washington. ``The message we gave him is the same one we give to everyone we meet with: We want to live in a democracy.''

Machado said that while Venezuelans should solve their own conflicts, the international community has a role in ''defending democracy'' everywhere.

That's the message she will push at the meeting of the 34-nation OAS.

But in Caracas, the Machado case was raising such hackles that Foreign Minister Rodr^guez hinted Friday that relations between the two nations could worsen unless the United States stops meddling in Venezuela's internal affairs.

''We have clearly shown our intention to improve relations,'' Rodr^guez said, adding that Chávez has no intention of breaking off relations. But he stressed that repairing relations ``does not depend on us.''

Bilateral relations have soured because of Washington's concern over Chávez's friendly ties to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, recent purchases of Russian weapons and domestic policies viewed as jeopardizing democracy in Venezuela.

The photograph of Machado with Bush in the White House appeared on the front pages of local newspapers and set off the firestorm among Chávez supporters.

U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield and U.S. Rep. Frank Wolfe, R-Va., had to cut short a meeting with pro-government lawmakers on counterdrug and -terrorism efforts after Wolfe said Machado was a ``defender of democratic principles.''

The Venezuelans accused Machado of being a ''coup plotter'' -- a reference to the short-lived 2002 coup against Chávez -- and receiving money from the National Endowment for Democracy.

''We know that the NED has connections to the Central Intelligence Agency,'' the newspaper El Nacional quoted pro-Chávez deputy Iris Varela as telling Wolfe. ``And [that Machado] follows the instructions of Bush and the State Department to destabilize the country.''

In the midst of the exchange, Brownfield dragged Wolfe from the legislative National Assembly and scrambled into an elevator.

''This is not the best moment in the history of relations between the United States and Venezuela,'' Brownfield said later.

``I think our challenge is to accept that we have fundamental issues of vision and principles where we do not agree and are not going to agree.''