- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002

Foreign ministers of the Organization of American States (OAS), meeting in a special session last night, heard warnings that the political upheaval that shook Venezuela a week ago could be repeated if the country's political class does not undertake major democratic reforms.

Representatives of the 34-member body convened in Washington on short notice just seven days after a mass demonstration touched off a sequence of events that almost derailed a democratic system that dates back 43 years, briefly toppling the elected government of leftist President Hugo Chavez.

OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria warned that "excessive polarization" could stand in the way of what he said was a sorely needed democratic dialogue in Venezuela.

"There seems to be a widespread conviction that renewed confrontation between friends and opponents of the government is inevitable and could lead to increased social protests," he said.

Earlier in the day, President Bush said a lack of respect for basic freedoms in Venezuela contributed to the political upheaval of last week.

Mr. Bush urged Mr. Chavez to respect democratic values and accused him of taking steps to "shut the press down" as protests mounted.

He dismissed widespread suggestions the United States welcomed the attempt to remove Mr. Chavez from office.

"The administration was very clear when there were troubles on the streets in Venezuela that we support democracy and did not support any extraconstitutional action," he said. "My administration spoke with a very clear voice about our strong support of democracy."

Mr. Gaviria's observations were based on a two-day fact-finding mission to Venezuela that began a day after Mr. Chavez was reinstated to power following a period last weekend that he spent in military custody.

Speaking for the United States at the OAS meeting, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell condemned "the blows to constitutional order that Venezuela has suffered."

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Luis Alfonso Davila defended the performance of the Chavez government, citing in particular its human rights record.

"In three years, the numbers are clear: There are no political prisoners, closed newspapers and suppressed liberties. In three years, there has never been an attack on liberties and rights of Venezuelans," he said.

The meeting, which began in the early evening yesterday, was heading toward approval of a resolution that was largely drafted by the Panamanian delegation with substantial input from American and Venezuelan diplomats.

The resolution encourages the Venezuelan government to carry out the essentials of democracy consistent with the hemispheric principles. In addition, it calls on all sectors of Venezuelan society to observe the rule of law.

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