- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

From Combined Dispatches

CARACAS, Venezuela | President Hugo Chavez sought to lower the tone of a diplomatic spat with the United States, saying he doesn’t plan to take more steps against his country’s biggest oil customer.

Mr. Chavez thrust the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries nation into its worst diplomatic crisis with the Bush administration in years by expelling the U.S. ambassador on Thursday, triggering a feud between Washington and Latin America’s leftist leaders.

The move came after Bolivian President Evo Morales, a Chavez ally, threw out the U.S. ambassador in La Paz, accusing him of fomenting protests against his leftist government.

“We don’t have any other plan, it was only a strong diplomatic gesture taken with a brother country,” Mr. Chavez told state-run television late on Friday.

“Only the United States can change our energy and commercial relationship,” he said.

The United States, in retaliation for Mr. Chavez’s decision, on Friday imposed sanctions on Venezuelan officials, whom it accused of helping Colombian rebels smuggle drugs, deepening the diplomatic crisis that raised the specter of an oil supply cutoff.

The sanctions were announced in Washington a day after Mr. Chavez also threatened to halt crude sales to the United States. Mr. Chavez warned that world crude prices would immediately double to more than $200 a barrel if he cut off oil exports to the United States.

Meanwhile, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet on Saturday called for an emergency meeting of South American leaders to find a resolution to the political crisis in Bolivia that has prompted the tit-for-tat exchange.

Violent anti-government protests have killed at least 18 people in Bolivia, where rightist governors have rebelled against Mr. Morales, demanding autonomy and rejecting his plans to overhaul the constitution and break up ranches to give land to poor Indians.

Government opponents are demanding that Mr. Morales cancel a referendum on a new constitution that would centralize power and transfer fallow terrain to landless peasants.

Mrs. Bachelet, head of the 12-nation Union of South American Nations, said she called the Monday meeting after talking with Mr. Morales. Mr. Chavez confirmed his participation.

“We’re going to take decisions so that the world and … the fascists in Bolivia know that we aren’t going to accept any other government that isn’t the legitimate elected government,” Mr. Chavez said.

Bolivia sent troops on Friday to an eastern province that was the scene of street battles between pro-and anti-government activists. Mr. Morales declared martial law late on Friday in Bolivia’s remote Amazon region of Pando, the site of the worst violence.

The Bolivian president on Saturday entered into talks with opposition governors from four provinces in open revolt.

The governor of natural gas-rich Tarija province, Mario Cossio, held talks at the presidential palace with the country’s vice president into the early hours.

“We have fulfilled the objective of opening talks, and let’s hope that in the coming hours, this turns into a sustained process of dialogue which results in a pact to resolve problems in the framework of national reconciliation,” Mr. Cossio said.

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