COHA in the Public ArenaVenezuela

Chavez foes tell US Venezuelan democracy at risk

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April 19, 2009

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Opponents of Hugo Chavez on Sunday urged President Barack Obama not to warm up to their president without also addressing their concerns about democracy and human rights in Venezuela.

“The president’s authoritarianism, which grows everyday, must be discussed,” said Milos Alcalay, who was Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations until he resigned in 2004 over differences with Chavez.

Chavez on Saturday announced that Venezuela is restoring its ambassador to Washington, saying he hopes for a “new era” in relations with the U.S. after meeting Obama this weekend at a summit of 34 hemispheric leaders in Trinidad and Tobago.

The socialist leader, who had stormy relations with Obama’s predecessor and once likened President George W. Bush to the devil, praised Obama for opening the door to improved relations between their nations.

“We’ve witnessed what was unthinkable several years ago: the U.S. government making a turnaround,” Chavez told supporters in Caracas on Sunday.

Venezuelan opponents to Chavez welcome improved diplomatic ties between Caracas and Washington and support Brazilian President Inacio Lula de Silva’s call for a future meeting between Chavez and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Alcalay said.

But the former diplomat urged Clinton to also meet with Chavez adversaries who accuse him of stifling dissent — including with recently elected Maracaibo Mayor Manuel Rosales, who went into hiding this month after a corruption case against him was resurrected.

“She must talk with the opposition, church representatives and others worried about democracy in Venezuela,” Alcalay said.

Former Defense Minister Raul Baduel was jailed last month on charges that funds went missing on his watch. Baduel, a one-time Chavez ally, claims the president is persecuting him for joining the opposition after leaving his government in 2007.

Chavez denies pressuring prosecutors and judges to sideline his adversaries, insisting that opponents accused of pocketing public funds are “criminals” who should face justice.

Venezuelan relations with the U.S. soured in recent years. Chavez expelled Washington’s ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, in September to show solidarity with Bolivia’s president, who kicked out the U.S. ambassador to La Paz for allegedly helping his opponents to incite violence. Washington reciprocated by kicking out both nations’ envoys.

Obama’s move to lift some restrictions against communist-led Cuba, one of Venezuela’s closest allies, ahead of the weekend summit appeared to help gain Chavez’s respect.

Chavez seems genuinely interested in improving ties with Washington, but it isn’t clear if he’ll take the necessary steps to guarantee a long-lasting, constructive relationship, said Larry Birns, director of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

“The question is: Can he spring roots for this new relationship so it lasts?” Birns said of Chavez. “I have a feeling there’s too much sizzle and not enough steak.”