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Rice Criticizes Venezuelan President Chavez at Confirmation Hearing

Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice, at her Senate confirmation hearings Tuesday, accused the Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chavez of meddling in the affairs of its neighbors. She said a thrust of her tenure as Secretary of State will be to hold accountable Latin American leaders who fail to uphold democracy.

The Bush administration has been a persistent critic of Mr. Chavez for what are seen here as efforts to subdue the country's political opposition and independent media, and Ms. Rice is making it clear that this approach will continue as President Bush's second term begins.

The secretary-designate was questioned about the U.S. policy toward Mr. Chavez by Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, who has just returned from a visit to Venezuela and several other South American countries and said the Venezuelan leader had expressed an interest in improving ties with Washington.

Ms. Rice said the Bush administration doesn't want to see the democratic trend in Latin over the past several years revert to a totalitarian one. She said there needs to be vigilance with regard to Mr. Chavez and, as she termed it, the "difficulties" his government is causing for its neighbors and its "close association" with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

"We are very concerned about a democratically elected leader who governs in an il-liberal way," she said. "And some of the steps that have been taken, with the media, against the opposition, I think are really very deeply troubling. And we're going to have to, as a Hemisphere, that signed a Democracy Charter, be devoted to making sure that those who signed that charter live up to it."

Senator Dodd said he appreciated Ms. Rice's concerns, but said that building a better relationship with Venezuela is a "two-way street" and requires effort on the part of the United States as well.

He said the Bush administration has established a good relationship, for instance with Brazil's left-leaning President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva despite some sharp anti-American rhetoric by the Brazilian leader as he campaigned for office in 2002.

"I can go back and show you statements that President Lula made that can compete with anything President Chavez has said," Mr. Dodd said. "Yet we find a way to work with this new president. My strong suggestion is that we find ways to do this. Going back and repeating these statements over and over again only dig the hole deeper and deeper. And that's an important relationship, it's important in the hemisphere. We need to work at it."

Senator Dodd lamented what he said was an "absence of attention" by the United States to Latin American issues in recent years amid the administration's understandable preoccupation with Iraq and terrorism.

He said U.S. policy in the region is in "deep trouble" as governments there struggle with economic problems at a time when U.S. aid is likely to decline.

Ms. Rice said the Bush administration is trying to work key relationships in Latin America in a "very aggressive way," including ties with the Brazilian government of President Lula, which she termed "extremely critical."

She stressed the need to press ahead with Brazil and others to achieve a hemispheric Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and similar deals with Andean and Central American states, and said she would like to see those agreements completed "sooner rather than later."