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US Calls on Chavez to Honor Terms of Proposed Referendum

The United States said it expects a planned referendum on the Hugo Chavez presidency in Venezuela to go forward despite a suggestion by Mr. Chavez earlier this week that the vote might never happen.

The State Department said it continues to believe that an electoral solution offers the best hope for a peaceful end to Venezuela's political crisis, and it is calling on Mr. Chavez to honor terms of a referendum agreement brokered by the Organization of American States, the OAS, two months ago.

The remarks follow a comment by Mr. Chavez in a speech to supporters Sunday that the only referendum held this year might be the one in the U.S. state of California, where Governor Gray Davis faces an unprecedented recall vote in October.

At a briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Venezuelan referendum, to be held after the mid-point on Mr. Chavez' current term in late August, was accepted May 29 by the parties to the dispute and is allowed under the country's constitution, and the United States expects the vote to go forward.

"Reports in the Venezuelan media say that President Chavez said that a referendum is unlikely this year. We would note that the Venezuelan constitution dictates that the decision to have a referendum lies with the courts, the National Electoral Council, and the people of Venezuela rather than with the executive branch of the government. So these things have been decided. There are commitments that have been made. We would expect them to go ahead," Mr. Boucher said.

The referendum was the key element of the May 29 agreement negotiated after months of work by OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria with diplomatic help from a six-nation "Group of Friends," including the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Spain and Portugal.

Mr. Boucher said U.S. diplomats are actively following the situation in Caracas, but said there are no specific plans for a meeting of the "friends" group at this time.

In another development, Mr. Boucher defended a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Caracas this week which condemned the kidnapping of former Venezuelan state governor Sergio Calderon of the opposition Social Christian party, and urged the Chavez government to thoroughly investigate the case and seek his safe return.

The statement drew a sharp reply from Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel, who accused the U.S. mission of "unacceptable discrimination," and said that Washington was not similarly concerned about pro-Chavez activists killed in political violence.

Spokesman Boucher said it is not interference in Venezuelan affairs to be concerned about a political figure who is kidnapped, and that investigating such crimes is one of the primary functions of governments everywhere.