- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

The United States yesterday held out an olive branch to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez less than a week after he survived an attempted coup, promising "normal relations" if he is "sincere" in his vows to rethink his policies.
The Bush administration also said it would significantly scale back its criticism of Mr. Chavez, despite remaining concerns about his conduct, at a meeting of the Organization of American State (OAS) in Washington today, in an effort to help the Latin American nation avoid future crises.
"We'd like to have normal relations with Venezuela," Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters at the State Department.
Mr. Chavez has clashed with the Bush administration on issues ranging from his government's oil policy to his friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
"If President Chavez is sincere and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity in his statement, I think he is going to find a cooperative United States," he said.
Mr. Reich referred to an address Mr. Chavez made after returning to power on Sunday, in which he said he wanted "to listen to criticism if it is presented in a loyal and honest spirit."
"I do not come with hate or rancor in my heart, but we must make decisions and adjust things," the populist leader said, noting that he had reflected on his mistakes and was prepared to "make corrections."
But a senior administration official cast doubt on Mr. Chavez's pledge there would be "no retributions" against those involved in last week's failed coup, citing reports of jailed military officers and their family members in government positions.
As a whole, however, the Venezuelan "military deserves credit for supporting the civil institutions" at a time when the country's democratically elected leader was being overthrown, the official said.
Another U.S. official said the United States will refrain from insisting on tough language in today's OAS resolution and "using it as an opportunity to go over our well-founded and well-known concerns about the conduct of the Chavez government."
"The United States will offer support for national dialogue and strengthening democratic institutions in the country," he said.
He said that throughout the crisis, "in spite of the fact that Chavez has been squaring off with us for years," the administration "managed not to make this a U.S.-versus-Chavez thing."
Mr. Reich said that Washington warned Venezuela's short-lived interim leader, Pedro Carmona, who was installed after some military officials claimed that Mr. Chavez had resigned, not to dissolve the branches of government.
However, Mr. Reich said he didn't place the call personally, as reported yesterday by the New York Times, but instructed the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Charles Shapiro, to contact Mr. Carmona.
"I never talked to Mr. Carmona," Mr. Reich said, adding that he had met him only once at a luncheon in Washington a year ago but didn't speak with him.
Another senior administration said the purpose of the conversation between Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Carmona was not to offer counsel, but to make clear "that we could not support unconstitutional government in Venezuela."
Mr. Carmona, a leading businessman and Chavez opponent, dissolved both the legislature and the Supreme Court, prompting the military to facilitate the deposed president's return.

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