A top U.S. State Department official says the United States will accept Venezuela's offer of humanitarian aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but does not view the offer as a signal of change in the strained relations between the two countries. The official made the comment to VOA Friday in a wide-ranging interview as he prepares to leave his post later this month.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, says Washington has received offers of relief assistance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina from some 15 countries in the Americas, including Venezuela.
The oil-rich government of President Hugo Chavez earlier this week offered energy and cash assistance to the United States, including sending some two-thousand soldiers, firefighters and others to help with the relief efforts.
Mr. Noriega says the Bush administration welcomes the offer, but still needs to study whether it can accommodate the deployment of Venezuelan humanitarian aid workers. Asked whether the aid offer signals a change in the tense relationship between Washington and Caracas, Mr. Noriega responded with a firm no -- characterizing it as a public relations ploy by President Chavez.
"We accept the offer in the spirit in which it's been offered, but I don't really see it as any kind of dramatic change," said Roger Noriega. "I think it's in part a public relations effort on his part. But we have to take in the context as part of a cycle where some positive things are said, and then some negative, unhelpful things are said. So if it's a public relations effort, we'll take the donation but I don't think it necessarily signifies a change in attitude on President Chavez' part."
After Venezuela extended the offer, Mr. Chavez personally attacked President Bush and accused the U.S. government of not preparing an effective evacuation plan.
Relations between the United States and Venezuela have deteriorated as Washington has spoken out against what it views as Mr. Chavez' increasingly authoritarian rule. The Bush administration also is concerned over Mr. Chavez' close ties with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the Venezuelan president's support for what the United States considers leftist, anti-democratic movements in the hemisphere.
Mr. Noriega says the Bush administration has worked to warn other Latin American countries about Mr. Chavez' intentions, but acknowledges the effort has not been completely effective.
"Most of these countries are naturally and understandably unwilling to confront Venezuela but we're not asking for confrontation," he said. "We're asking for solidarity with the Venezuelan people, that we defend our shared values in all countries: Cuba, Venezuela, or Haiti. We have to defend those basic values. The fact is though, that at $70 barrel [of oil], that buys an awful lot of sympathy and tolerance on the part of our neighbors for some of the things that Chavez is doing and saying."
Mr. Noriega, who steps down from his post later this month, has drawn fire from Venezuela and critics of U.S. policy for his blunt rhetoric. However, the outgoing assistant secretary says he has no regrets and says the basic outlines of U.S. policy toward Latin America will continue unchanged under his successor.