Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Wednesday said the Bush administration does not want to have a bad relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. But in congressional testimony, Ms. Rice said U.S. officials are concerned about whether Mr. Chavez intends to govern democratically, and about his relationship with Cuba's President Fidel Castro.
Ms. Rice's appearance before the House Appropriations Committee came on the eve of her first trip to Latin America as secretary, a one-day visit to Mexico. And the issue of the Bush administration's chilly relationship with the Venezuelan leader figured prominently in the two-hour hearing, nominally about the coming year's State Department budget.
House Democrat Jose Serrano of New York said given the fact that Mr. Chavez has twice been elected president, and won a recall referendum last August, it might be wiser to embrace him as a democratic leader rather than continue a verbal confrontation with him.
Ms. Rice said the administration respects the democratic process in Venezuela, but that Mr. Chavez's treatment of the opposition and independent media raises questions about whether he intends to govern democratically.
She further said there are concerns about interference by the Chavez government in the internal affairs of neighbors including support for the FARC guerrillas in Colombia. And she suggested Mr. Chavez' democratic credentials are tarnished by his relationship with Cuba's Fidel Castro, the only non-democratically elected leader in the Hemisphere:
"When you go to the Organization of American States, there's one country that cannot attend because of the democratic charter, that's Cuba,” she explained. “When you go to the Summit of the Americas, there's one state that cannot attend because of the democratic charter, that's Cuba. And to embrace Fidel Castro is to embrace a non-democratic regime and therefore a non-democratic future for the Cuban people, and we simply think that's wrong."
Mr. Serrano suggested in response that the critical approach to Mr. Chavez was driven by U.S. domestic politics and the views of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans. He said while the Venezuelan leader is criticized for his relationship with the communist Cuban government, the Bush administration pursues relations with many countries that are less than democratic.
"We are upset amongst other reasons for President Chavez's relationship to Cuba," he noted. “Yet we have relationships with China, we have relationships with Saudi Arabia, we have some relationship with Syria. We could establish relationships tomorrow to a full extent with Iran and North Korea if they behaved a little differently. So I don't think that having a relationship with Cuba should be enough for us to undo, or to attempt to undo, or to confront a democratically elected government."
Secretary Rice responded sharply to a comment by Mr. Serrano that it is widely held in Latin America that, in his words, U.S. fingerprints were all over the 2002 military coup that briefly unseated Mr. Chavez.
She said despite repeated claims to the contrary by President Chavez, the United States was to her fullest knowledge not involved in any way in the overthrow attempt.
Earlier Wednesday in an interview with the Spanish-language television network Univision, Secretary Rice dismissed as completely ludicrous a recent charge by Mr. Chavez that the United States may be plotting his assassination.
She said she hopes the Venezuelan leader knows that the only concerns U.S. officials have is that he should govern democratically, and that he should not interfere in the affairs of his neighbors.