- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The United States will push hard for diplomatic pressure against Venezuela if President Hugo Chavez tries to rig the upcoming referendum on his rule, the State Department’s Latin America point man said yesterday.

Roger F. Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said Mr. Chavez’s government faces a “make-or-break exercise” as election officials this weekend decide whether to validate hundreds of thousands of disputed signatures in the referendum drive.

“It’s very clear to us the requisite number of people supported the petition” for a referendum, Mr. Noriega told editors and reporters during a visit to The Washington Times yesterday.

“If through some very tortured bureaucratic process, those signatures are tossed out, it could have very dire consequences for Venezuelans and for those who support their rights under the constitution,” he said.

In wide-ranging remarks about U.S. policy toward Latin America, Mr. Noriega defended recent moves to tighten travel and spending restrictions for Cuba and expressed cautious hope for Haiti’s new interim government.

He also said the war in Iraq and its troubled aftermath had “brought some difficulties” for U.S. public diplomacy in many Central and South American countries.

But he said the Bush administration had been able to establish productive relations, even with new center-left governments in Brazil and Argentina.

Mr. Noriega said U.S. officials will be watching closely as Venezuelan election officials this weekend decide whether to validate about 800,000 disputed signatures for a referendum on Mr. Chavez, a populist former military officer who has clashed repeatedly with Washington.

Anti-Chavez activists complained this week of government intimidation in the run-up to this weekend’s recount. If enough signatures are validated, Mr. Chavez faces a recall vote in August that many think he is desperate to avoid. His six-year term is supposed to end in 2006.

Mr. Noriega said U.S. officials are not contemplating political or economic sanctions, but his comments still were among the toughest to date by a senior administration official.

“We will use what multilateral levers we have,” he said. “We have told our partners we think this is a make-or-break exercise to see whether the state can respect the wishes of the Venezuelan people.”

The Organization of American States (OAS), the Atlanta-based Carter Center, and a loose alliance of regional powers led by Brazil have tried to ease the political stalemate in Caracas.

Mr. Chavez, who survived a coup attempt in 2002, has blamed unnamed Colombian and U.S. forces for seeking to drive him from power, and Venezuela’s political paralysis has become an economic and political distraction for the entire region, Mr. Noriega said.

Mr. Noriega, a former Capitol Hill staffer and ambassador to the OAS, also was a prime architect of recent moves to toughen U.S. economic pressure on Cuba’s Fidel Castro and spell out U.S. policy toward a democratic, post-Castro Cuba.

He helped draft the commission report endorsed by President Bush earlier this month calling for increased broadcasting to Cuba, as well as sharp new limits on the time and money U.S. visitors can spend when traveling to the island.

He acknowledged that even some U.S.-backed dissidents in Cuba had criticized the moves as counterproductive, but said the commission focused tightly on U.S. policy and avoided any direct interference in Cuban affairs.

“Clearly, we want to see representative democracy and a free-market economy come to Cuba, but I hasten to add that those will be decisions the Cuban people must make,” he said.

He rejected the argument that easing the 40-year U.S. embargo on Cuba would hasten the end of Mr. Castro’s one-man rule.

“If I thought for a moment that a bunch of sun-burned tourists could help wash away Castro, I might reconsider the embargo,” he said, “but I just don’t see it happening.”

Mr. Noriega said the situation in Haiti is “stable” less than three months after U.S. officials helped ease out President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the face of a violent uprising against his rule.

The United States, earlier this week, pledged a $100 million economic package to help revive Haiti’s devastated economy.

Mr. Noriega said other countries in the region have shown a willingness to contribute financially and militarily to the new interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue. Brazil is spearheading a new international peacekeeping force for Haiti to replace the U.S.-led mission now there.

“We’re frankly not out of the woods on the security situation, but I do see a willingness to invest in Haiti to jump-start the economy and plan for new elections,” Mr. Noriega said.

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