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Chavez Seen as Falling Short in Efforts to Mend Rift

Venezuela: After a short-lived coup, the leader has not kept pledge to open talks with foes, the U.S. says.


WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. government official said Thursday that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has failed to do enough to reach out to the political opposition since a short-lived coup disrupted his country three months ago.

Otto J. Reich, assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, said that in the aftermath of the April 11 coup attempt Chavez has not kept a promise to open a new dialogue with his domestic critics.

"While there's been a lot of rhetoric on both sides ... we haven't seen that taking place," Reich told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "It's incumbent on the government to reach out to the population."

Venezuela, the third-largest oil supplier to the United States, has remained deeply polarized since the brief coup. Chavez and his supporters, who are concentrated primarily among the poor, are opposed by many in the middle and upper classes, the business community, the church, news media and other institutions.

Many Venezuelans have been arming themselves; observers have said another power struggle could explode at any time.

Reich said that although both sides in Venezuela have an obligation to work toward reconciliation, the burden on the Chavez administration is greater because "governments have more power."

He said the U.S. favored having the Organization of American States act as mediator between the two sides. But Chavez has made clear that he does not favor such a role for the group.

Reich said the Bush administration remains "very concerned about the situation there."

Chavez, a fiery former military officer fond of Marxist rhetoric, has been the administration's least favorite leader in the Western Hemisphere, with the exception of Cuban President Fidel Castro.

But Reich insisted that the administration continues to view Chavez as the legitimate, democratically elected president of the country. "We do not support coups," he said.

Private experts said that although both sides in Venezuela have made some gestures toward reconciliation, the gap between their positions is so great that there appears little chance of harmony.

"There's very little give in terms of the political dialogue," said Riordan Roett, director of the Western Hemisphere program at Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. "I don't see any space there for any kind of rapprochement."

Stephen Johnson, a Latin American specialist at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, said that while Chavez has been faulted for undemocratic actions, some opponents seem to prefer the idea of replacing the Venezuelan leader with a right-wing strongman.

"They don't seem to understand [that democracy is] the path to their salvation," he said.

Analysts said the Chavez government has sought to stay on good terms with its American oil customers since the coup. The government has kept the supply and price of oil relatively steady since April, in a sign of how much its weakening economy depends on revenue from the oil sector, the analysts said.

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