- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2007

PANAMA CITY — A war of words broke out yesterday between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Venezuelan counterpart over Venezuela’s decision to close a popular television station, sidetracking a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) that was supposed to focus on energy.

Miss Rice hurled the first salvo, saying freedom of speech is not a “thorn in the side of democracy,” a direct reference to the shutdown of RCTV by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez because of critical reports about his government.

“Freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of conscience are not a thorn in the side of government. They are the beginning of justice in every society,” Miss Rice said during her opening remarks to OAS foreign ministers.

“Disagreeing with your government is not unpatriotic and most certainly should not be a crime in any country, especially in a democracy,” she said.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro struck back, saying, “Venezuela demands respect for its sovereignty.”

He sought to turn a critical eye on the United States, saying the OAS should conduct an investigation of how the United States treats detainees at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, instead of concerning itself with the closure of a Venezuelan TV station.

After his address to OAS leaders, Miss Rice asked for and received an opportunity to rebut the Venezuelan minister’s remarks.

“As to issues in the United States of human rights, of how we fight the war on terror, the detention of unlawful combatants at Guantanamo, on immigration policy, on any issue, I am quite certain that it would be difficult for any commission to debate more fully, to investigate more fully, to criticize the policies of the United States government then is done every night on CNN, on ABC, on CBS, on NBC and on any number of smaller channels in the United States,” Miss Rice said.

When it was Mr. Maduro’s turn to reply to Miss Rice’s rebuttal, Miss Rice stood up and left the conference. The Venezuelan foreign minister said Guantanamo was akin to”something monstrous, only comparable to the Hitler era.”

“The United States and its government, sooner or later, will have to respect the sovereignty of our government and our people,” Mr. Maduro shouted.

Before the verbal fireworks, Miss Rice praised the OAS choice of renewable energy as the theme of this year’s general assembly and said the United States recognized the need to reduce the hemisphere’s dependence on oil.

“We are working to realize the … goal of cutting out [oil] use by 20 percent in 10 years through better automotive efficiency and great use of alternative fuels,” she said.

She also praised a biofuel accord signed in March whereby the United States and Brazil will work together to promote ethanol production throughout Latin America.

OAS energy specialist Mark Lambrides said Miss Rice’s remarks represented “a firm commitment by the secretary to stand behind the U.S.-Brazil bilateral agreement” that he assured would expand ethanol production and develop other alternative biofuels in the region.

Leaders from Venezuela and Cuba — which does not have an official representative at the meetings because the communist island is not a member of the OAS — have opposed further expansion of ethanol production in Latin America and the Caribbean, claiming it would deplete food supplies in the region.

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