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Top US Official Says Influence of Venezuela's Chavez Waning

A top U.S. State Department official says he thinks Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is losing influence following his verbal attack on President Bush at the United Nations in September. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns says the latest election trend in Latin America is toward moderation.

Mr. Chavez appears to be headed for a big re-election win when Venezuelans go to the polls Dec. 3.

But the State Department's senior policy official says he believes the regional influence of the Venezuelan leader has begun to erode because of his rhetorical excesses, including a scathing attack on President Bush at the U.N. General Assembly.

In the Sep. 20 New York speech, Mr. Chavez denounced President Bush as an imperialist "devil" who had devoted his years in office to military aggression and oppression of the world's poor.

At a State Department security forum for U.S. corporations operating abroad, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicolas Burns said the "objectionable and somewhat ridiculous" Chavez remarks may have been a political turning point for the Venezuelan leader.

He said the speech, seen as exceptionally inflammatory by U.N. standards, back-fired and may have cost Venezuela the regional seat on the U.N. Security Council that it had avidly sought.

"He ran, Venezuela ran, for a seat in the Security Council and they were defeated in large measure probably because of that speech," Burns said.

"Because people see him for what he is. He is somebody who divides, who throws little bombs, rhetorical bombs, into rooms," he continued. "And he seeks to tear people down. But the agenda of the new Mexican government, of President Uribe in Colombia, of President Lula in Brazil, is to build up, is to increase trade and investment, is to reach out to the private sector, is to have a hemisphere that is united with the United States not divided from the United States."

Burns said that earlier this year, he might have accepted the conventional wisdom that Mr. Chavez was on the rise, using petro-dollars to "finance all sorts of nefarious activities."

But he asserted that Mr. Chavez is now losing influence, and that recent elections in the region, with the exception of last week's Nicaragua vote that brought leftist Daniel Ortega back to power, have been toward what he termed responsible governments of the center-left and center-right.

Burns expressed hope that Bolivian President Ivo Morales, seen as a protégé of Mr. Chavez, will adopt a more integrationist approach to the rest of the hemisphere and "turn back toward the mainstream."