- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2006

The United States has praised Latin American countries that accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of meddling in their internal affairs — a sign, U.S. officials say, that his influence in the region is diminishing.

The issue of Mr. Chavez’s role in national elections across Latin America, as well as in oil production and prices, was raised at a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly in the Dominican Republic.

Peruvian Foreign Minister Oscar Maurtua told the delegates yesterday that the Venezuelan leader had engaged in “unacceptable” interference in Sunday’s runoff presidential elections in Peru by publicly supporting Ollanta Humala, a nationalist candidate who lost.

“I must submit to all of you the deep rejection of Peru’s government and people of the unacceptable and systematic manifestations of interference by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela throughout the electoral process,” Mr. Maurtua told representatives of the 34 OAS member states.

“His constant interventionist attitude with the aim of influencing the decision of the Peruvian people constitutes a reprehensible act,” he said.

Former President Alan Garcia won Sunday’s election with 53.2 percent of the votes.

Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, who heads the U.S. delegation at the meeting, which began Sunday and ends today, said the dispute between Peru and Venezuela “is affirmation of the reports you’ve been getting from Latin America over the past weeks and months.”

“It is encouraging that the democracies of Latin America that feel that Venezuela has been infringing on their own democratic process are speaking up on their own. And this is not only Peru, but it was Nicaragua and others,” Mr. Zoellick said late Sunday.

“You might have seen that Venezuela recently suggested a cut in OPEC oil production, which would have only increased oil prices for many of the poorer people in developing countries in Latin America,” he said, referring to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

“From what I’ve heard so far, that wasn’t so popular in the region,” he added “And it’s also encouraging that the OPEC countries themselves refused the idea.”

Some ministers in Santo Domingo expressed disappointment that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not attend the annual meeting. Miss Rice had planned to attend, but canceled her trip late last week, citing a busy schedule.

Last month, the Bush administration’s top official for Latin America told The Washington Times that Venezuela has allowed its intelligence service to become a clone of Cuba’s, while it shelters groups with ties to Middle East terrorists and allows weapons from its official stockpiles to reach Colombian guerrillas.

“It would be a mistake for U.S. foreign policy in the region to overly concentrate on the guy,” said Thomas A. Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. “If we allow ourselves to get trapped in the kind of confrontation that he wants to have with us, it lessens our influence with others in the region.”

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