- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

CARACAS, Venezuela Tensions between the Bush administration and Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez, have eased dramatically in recent weeks amid assurances by Mr. Chavez that he will keep oil flowing to the United States if it goes to war with Iraq.

"The U.S.'s difficulties with oil supplies are obligating it to have good relations with Venezuela," said Julio Cesar Montoya, president of the National Assembly's Foreign Relations Commission. "The two nations need each other."

The rapprochement between the nations, which hit a low point in April when the military briefly ousted Mr. Chavez, goes beyond oil.

Venezuela's parliament recently passed several new laws against terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking.

On the diplomatic front, talks are progressing toward permitting U.S. drug-interdiction flights once again to cross Venezuelan airspace on their way to Colombia from U.S. Caribbean bases, Mr. Montoya said.

Shortly after coming to power in 1999, Mr. Chavez, a longtime friend and supporter of Cuban leader Fidel Castro's, banned the flights for "sovereignty" reasons.

"[Bilateral relations] are at their best point of the Chavez administration." Caracas political commentator Angel Alvarez said.

It's a far cry from last year, when Mr. Chavez condemned the U.S. war in Afghanistan as equivalent to terrorism, or as recently as April, when Washington appeared to welcome Mr. Chavez's short-lived ouster by military officers.

Mr. Chavez, elected in 1998, has been a source of repeated annoyance for his trademark criticism of U.S. policies and influence in the hemisphere.

In April, when Mr. Chavez appeared to have been replaced for good by a U.S.-oriented business leader, officials in Washington publicly blamed Mr. Chavez for his downfall.

But last month, in what was widely perceived here as a quid pro quo, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas issued a statement promising that Washington would oppose any "illegal and/or violent actions with the purpose of overthrowing or preserving the present government of Venezuela."

That declaration dismayed the most radical sectors of Mr. Chavez's opposition, who continue to make thinly veiled calls for another coup.

During a visit to Venezuela earlier this month to try to bring the two sides to the negotiating table, Cesar Gaviria, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, credited the changed U.S. position with moderating calls for Mr. Chavez's overthrow.

"I think that message has gotten through and probably has something to do with the change within the [opposition]," Mr. Gaviria said, "and that has been beneficial."

Meanwhile, after six months without an ambassador in Washington, Caracas has offered a new nominee who, according to Mr. Montoya, "shows every sign of being approved" by Washington.

Mr. Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement party has not been subtle about its warming ties with Washington.

Banners with the party's MVR logo, saying "Venezuela and North America, now more united than ever," hang across avenues in downtown Caracas.

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