- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

BUENOS AIRES — The United States is asking Argentina to support its efforts to isolate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and protect civil liberties in Venezuela.

On Tuesday, President Bush spent 20 minutes on the telephone with Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, in part to ask for his help in fostering “regional stability.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met yesterday with her Argentine counterpart, Foreign Minister Rafael Bielsa.

“The United States has been concerned about the developments in Venezuela and of Venezuela in terms of its neighbors. … We think all countries in the region need to be supportive of democracy and need to call attention to these problems with democracy there,” U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.

He said the United States is concerned about Venezuela’s recent arms purchases and its “destabilizing role in the region.”

“These things are matters of concern to the United States, but they’re also matters of concern to other people in the region,” he said.

Yesterday’s State Department meeting comes after Mr. Chavez this week signed a deal to buy military patrol vessels and transport planes from Spain.

U.S. officials have cast Mr. Chavez as a democratically elected but authoritarian leader bent on destabilizing the region.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently said Russian-made weapons being sought by Venezuela could migrate to Colombia’s largest Marxist rebel group.

“I can’t understand why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s,” Mr. Rumsfeld said last week during a visit to the Brazilian capital of Brasilia, where he met with leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. “I personally hope it doesn’t happen. I can’t imagine if it did happen it would be good for the hemisphere.”

Mr. Chavez, who denies interfering with his neighbors, accuses Mr. Bush of planning to assassinate him.

He also has threatened to cut off the 1.4 million barrels of oil Venezuela sells the United States per day.

Earlier this year, he announced the formation of a civilian military force in “fields and factories” aimed at repelling a U.S. attack.

Mr. Chavez on Wednesday said his government has started looking for partners to buy part of Venezuelan-owned Citgo Petroleum Corp., according to the Associated Press.

Washington’s attempt to isolate Mr. Chavez is complicated by anti-American sentiment in much of Latin America.

A public opinion survey from Latinobarometro, a Chilean firm, has reported that 60 percent of Mexicans, Argentines and Brazilians have negative opinions of the United States.

According to El Clarin, another leading paper that cited Argentine government sources, Mr. Kirchner told Mr. Bush during the 20-minute conversation Tuesday that “it is necessary to continue maintaining dialogue with the democratic government of Venezuela.”

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