- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

The United States plans to join a six-nation group seeking an end to Venezuela's deepening political and economic crisis, despite the objections of embattled Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
The so-called "Friends of Venezuela" group, first proposed by new Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, was announced late yesterday in Quito, Ecuador, where a number of regional leaders had gathered for the inauguration of the new president, Lucio Gutierrez.
Designed to add muscle to efforts by the Organization of American States to mediate the crisis between Mr. Chavez and a powerful opposition group demanding his ouster, the Friends of Venezuela will also include Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Spain and Portugal, diplomats said.
The group will sit at the negotiating table to aid so-far fruitless talks led by the head of the OAS, Cesar Gaviria.
"We're looking for a solution that is peaceful, constitutional, democratic," Mr. Gaviria said.
But Brazil, spearheading the group, said there was no quick fix and warned that clashes between the Venezuelan opposition and pro-Chavez militants could easily escalate.
"There are no magic solutions. On the contrary, aiming for magic solutions could lead to more violent conflicts," said Brazil's foreign minister, Celso Amorim.
The impasse has reached a climax with a 46-day strike in the oil industry that has punished consumers and crippled the leading export industry of South America's third-largest economy.
Although originally cool to the proposal, the United States now "would expect to be part of it and others would expect us to be part of it," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday, just hours before it was announced.
While Mr. Chavez opposed any U.S. role, some opposition leaders had said they did not want Brazil's new leftist government included in the new grouping.
The populist Mr. Chavez, who was in Ecuador yesterday but did not attend the meeting approving the new effort, ridiculed President Bush for failing to take part personally in the Quito discussions and called his Venezuelan opponents "fascists."
"My understanding is that the United States did not ask for this meeting," Mr. Chavez told reporters. "It is a meeting between presidents. Is Bush here?"
Mr. Chavez travels to New York today for talks with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Mr. Chavez has rejected opposition demands to resign and hold immediate new elections, just two years into his six-year term.
Despite Mr. Bush's absence, U.S. officials in recent days have made clear they take a keen interest in the unfolding drama in Caracas.
Venezuela is the world's fifth-largest oil supplier at 3 million barrels a day and provides more than 10 percent of the petroleum imported into the United States annually. Production cuts due to the strike have sent world oil prices to a two-year high of $31.15 a barrel.
Mr. Chavez has also repeatedly challenged U.S. policy in the region, showcasing his close friendship with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and reportedly offering aid and shelter to leftist rebels fighting the U.S.-backed government in Colombia.


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