- The Washington Times - Monday, August 30, 2004

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez appears to be seeking a rapprochement with Washington just two weeks after revalidating his mandate in a recall referendum he had portrayed as a contest between himself and the U.S. government.

Foreign Minister Jesus Perez announced last week that Mr. Chavez would like to meet Mr. Bush when the Venezuelan president travels to the United States for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly next month.

“We began our government with very cordial negotiations with Bill Clinton and everything changed with the arrival of President George W. Bush and his advisers, who were not very well informed about what is happening in Venezuela,” Mr. Perez told reporters in Bogota.

“Administrations and governments change, and so we have a lot of faith that that can change in the coming months.”

U.S. officials have not responded to the offer, but have been measured in their comments on Venezuela since Mr. Chavez’s victory in the Aug. 15 referendum, an outcome whose legitimacy they have not challenged.

Urging Mr. Chavez to use his victory to heal divisions in the country, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said last week, “We hope the government of Venezuela will take a constructive approach to our bilateral relationship.”

That relationship has been rocky at best since Mr. Chavez assumed office in 1998. The Venezuelan leader has riled U.S. policy-makers by befriending Cuban leader Fidel Castro, sharply criticizing U.S. foreign policy and trying to form a unified Latin American political and economic bloc at the expense of U.S. interests in the region.

Mr. Chavez accused the United States of trying to destabilize his government after Bush administration officials prematurely welcomed an unsuccessful coup in April 2002.

Mr. Chavez made U.S. links to his opposition a running theme in his campaign for the referendum, promising both to hit a “home run against the gringos” and to deal Mr. Bush a “knockout” punch in the referendum.

But with Mr. Chavez’s grip on power now strengthened by the Aug. 15 vote, both sides seem to be interested in easing tension.

The Bush administration disappointed Venezuela’s opposition when it failed to endorse their accusations of an electoral fraud.

“If the opposition does have concerns, if they do have evidence … then they need to present that. Otherwise, it’s time to move on,” said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.

“Now that it’s over, it’s important for people to come together and to move forward consistent with democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela.”

For Mr. Chavez, a meeting with Mr. Bush would further marginalize the opposition while bolstering his own legitimacy.

Mr. Bush can ill afford during a tight re-election campaign to destabilize relations with the fourth-largest supplier of crude oil to the United States at a time of record petroleum prices.

“Confrontation can only result in oil prices going up, and high oil prices are more dangerous for the Bush campaign at this moment than Chavez,” said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

“It is quite conceivable that Bush will meet not only with Chavez, but with other pariah rogue leaders to show this administration is capable of negotiation in a businesslike manner in situations that clearly advance U.S. national interests.”

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