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US Seeks Latin American Initiative on Venezuela

A top State Department official says the United States wants to mobilize Latin American countries to deal with what the Bush administration considers to be Venezuela's threat to regional stability. The official spoke about Venezuela and other hemispheric issues on VOA's "Foro Interamericano" program, and in a separate English interview.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega says the rhetoric and actions of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are undermining democracy in the South American nation, and posing a threat to Venezuela's neighbors.

Mr. Noriega says the populist Venezuelan leader is centralizing power in the executive branch, and reaching out to groups that seek to overthrow democratically-elected governments.

Colombia has long suspected the Chavez government of allowing leftist rebels to use Venezuela as a sanctuary, something which Caracas denies. In December, a senior member of the rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was kidnapped in Caracas by bounty-hunters and delivered to Colombian authorities across the border. The incident touched off a diplomatic dispute between the two neighbors.

Mr. Noriega told VOA the presence of the FARC in Venezuela shows what he called "the bad faith" of the Chavez government.

"This is a very troubling phenomenon,"said Roger Noriega. "Chavez has every right to engage in rhetorical excesses, but he also has certain obligations, not only to his own people, but to his neighbors: to respect the rule of law, respect democratic values and to help his neighbors fight criminal groups that represent a threat across the continent."

Mr. Noriega says the Bush administration will seek to persuade Latin American countries that Venezuela poses a threat to hemispheric stability. However, he acknowledged such a consensus does not yet exist.

"At this point, there is a sort of a fatigue among the countries in the hemisphere, and they are really not eager to confront Chavez in a frontal way," he said. "We understand that, but this may be one of those things you can't avoid doing for the sake of hemispheric security, for the sake of stability in the Americas, and we're going to be making this case."

Mr. Noriega said Washington might seek to invoke the democracy charter of the Organization of American States that was signed in 2001, which calls for collective sanctions against presidents who seek to become de facto dictators.