- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has rejected recent overtures from the United States to improve the nations’ strained relationship, prompting Washington to respond with a tougher policy toward the country, Bush administration officials said yesterday.

An interagency policy review under way is focusing on political and diplomatic measures, rather than economic sanctions that might hurt the U.S. economy, the officials said.

The administration, they added, will begin a broad campaign in Latin America soon, urging friendly countries to reassess their relations with Mr. Chavez and to speak up against his authoritarian and anti-democratic rule.

“It is very clear to us that Chavez’s unrelenting hostility toward the United States prevents him from pursuing a normal relationship,” a senior administration official said.

He said Washington had accepted Mr. Chavez’s victory in an August referendum last year and had hoped to establish a more positive relationship with him, but all efforts to do so in the past several months have failed.

The attempts started with a message delivered by the new U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, William Brownfield, who had to wait a month after arriving in the capital Caracas in October before Mr. Chavez received his credentials.

Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, said he was surprised by those comments.

“We have had extensive conversations with the U.S. ambassador and other American officials, and our vice president has said that we were willing to start talks about issues of mutual interest,” the envoy said in a telephone call from Caracas.

“We’ll be communicating our conclusions to his [Mr. Chavezs] neighbors and raise the alarm about what is happening in that important country,” the senior Bush administration official said, referring to stricter new media laws, seizures of private property and pro-Chavez judicial appointments.

The U.S. official also accused Mr. Chavez of “supporting radical groups” from other countries in the region, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, know as the FARC, and “undermining democratically elected governments” in those countries.

“We’ll have to hold Chavez more to account on counterterrorism and counternarcotics cooperation,” he said.

After the Aug. 15 referendum, the U.S. message to other leaders in the hemisphere was: “Don’t provoke Chavez, leave him alone,” the official said.

“But now, there are values at stake,” he said. “The United States has been alone in some of its statements defending principles of human rights and democracy, and that’s not the way it should be.”

Although some countries might be intimidated by the oil wealth that Mr. Chavez controls, “it’s important that leaders in the hemisphere take stock of [his actions] and tell him, as a community, that it’s unacceptable,” the official said.

He also said that economic sanctions are not the “thrust” of the administration’s policy review, although Washington is considering alternative sources of oil in case Mr. Chavez stops or decreases Venezuelan exports.

Venezuela is the fourth-largest oil supplier to the United States.

Another administration official said, however, that losing the U.S. market would be more painful to Venezuela, because it sends 80 percent of its oil exports to the United States.

The first official also expressed concern about the “militarization of Venezuelan society,” noting that Caracas is seeking to purchase more than 100,000 AK-47s “for a military of fewer than 40,000.”

A State Department official said Russia, the apparent supplier of the weapons, has been made aware of Washington’s concerns.

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