- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 15, 2003

QUITO, Ecuador, Jan. 15 (UPI) — Brazil's president Wednesday called for a diplomatic solution to the general strike crippling neighboring Venezuela, which has endured more than a month of unrest.

While attending the inauguration of Ecuador's new President Lucio Gutierrez in the capital, Quito, Brazil's own newly anointed leader, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, stressed Venezuela's importance to the continent's largest country and economy.

"We want Venezuela to find its way in the most tranquil and peaceful manner possible," said Lula. "What we really want is to help Venezuela find a way peacefully and for the Venezuelan people to be happy."

While finding a peaceful end to the now 45-day strike may be a tall order, the Brazilian leader went to Quito on Wednesday with an agenda that included a brainstorming session with other Latin American leaders about how to end the strike.

Lula brought with him the idea of creating a regional, multi-national "Friends of Venezuela Group" — Grupo de Paises Amigos da Venezuela — to help bring a peaceful end to the strike, as well as daily protests and clashes between supporters and detractors of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

A leftist with an inclination toward social reform, Lula has strong ties to Chavez, also from the left. Opponents of the Venezuelan president allege he has taken the nation too far to the left at the expense of the economy.

Chavez — who also attended the inauguration — heaped praise on Lula for calling the meeting of president to help thrash out a solution to the strike.

"It is extraordinary, because Lula and Brazil should assume, as they are already doing, the role of protagonists in leading the new South America," Chavez asserted.

Not all Venezuelans shared their president's enthusiasm for Brazilian intervention in ending the strike. Protestors Tuesday gathered outside the Brazilian Embassy in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, chanting and waving signs denouncing Brazil's intended role in their country's affairs.

"We like samba — we don't like intromission," read one sign, referring to the popular Brazilian dance.

The Lula-led meeting of regional leaders has also drawn the ire of Washington, who had hoped to form its own "Friends of Venezuela" group to end strike that has severely handicapped Venezuela's oil production capabilities.

A Washington Post article last week noted that the President Bush's administration was hoping to head off the left-leaning Lula government's initiative, adding that U.S. and foreign diplomatic sources were concerned that the effort would ultimately be counterproductive.

The U.S.-led effort would include Brazil, as well as the United States, Mexico, Chile and possibly Spain, and a representative of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, according to the Post.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher recently explained the Bush administration's position on regional intervention in Venezuela, simply stating, "We don't think there needs to be some separate group of friends formed."

Lula has maintained a non-adversarial, diplomatic position on the U.S. stance while moving ahead with the proposed meeting. His presidential spokesman, Andre Singer, said Tuesday that the Friends of Venezuela Group "would be to support the negotiation effort by Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria, to resolve the crisis in that country."

Gaviria had been mediating talks between the government and opposition leaders in recent weeks with little success. The effort is currently at a standstill due to a disagreement regarding the possible ouster of Chavez. The OAS secretary-general also attended Wednesday's meeting of regional leaders.

Singer said that Brazil's new Foreign Relations Minister Celso Amorim had spoken to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell about the upcoming meeting, though he didn't expand on the specifics of the leaders' discussion.

"There is a convergence of opinion concerning the need to overcome the crisis in Venezuela," he said somewhat elusively.

The Bush administration initially appeared apprehensive about interfering in the Venezuela crisis. Last spring, Washington came out in support of Chavez's ouster, only to have the Venezuelan president return to power a few days later.

But now it appears the U.S. president is becomingly increasingly interested in ending a strike that has denied the United States the more than 1 million barrels of oil a day it was receiving from Venezuela.


(Reported by Carmen Gentile, UPI Latin America correspondent,

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