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US Says It Wants Constructive Relationship with Venezuela

The United States said Monday it will seek to have a constructive relationship with Venezuela after the re-election of populist President Hugo Chavez. But it turned a cold-shoulder to an overture for dialogue from acting Cuban leader Raul Castro. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The Bush administration has had a rocky relationship with Venezuelan President Chavez, underscored by the populist leader's harsh personal attack on President Bush last September at the United Nations.

Nonetheless, the State Department says in the wake of the Chavez re-election victory, it remains hopeful for a positive and constructive dialogue with the Venezuelan government, noting that cooperation has continued in some areas during Mr. Chavez' eight-year tenure.

The Venezuelan president sounded anything but conciliatory toward Washington in post-election comments. Echoing his controversial U.N. General Assembly speech, he framed his landslide victory as a setback for the United States - in his words a defeat for the devil and those who try to dominate the world.

Asked about the election outcome, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the Chavez rhetoric makes things a little more difficult, yet does not preclude the two governments being able to work together in areas of mutual concern, citing ongoing cooperation, for example, on combating drug trafficking.

"We are certainly able to look beyond those kinds of comments, if there's a true will or spirit of working together. I'm not sure that sort of rhetoric serves the Venezuelan government well in the long-run in terms of its international standing. But again, the Venezuelan people have spoken in terms of who they're going to elect as their president. And we will work where we can with the Venezuelan government on a positive agenda," he said.

Mr. Chavez' verbal attack in September is widely seen as having caused a diplomatic backlash that last month cost Venezuela an election for the Latin American seat on the U.N. Security Council, a seat eventually won by Panama.

The president's fiery rhetoric aside, Bush administration officials have been most concerned about what they see as efforts by Mr. Chavez to intimidate or silence domestic opponents and to try to export his brand of left-wing populism.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, in a Harvard University speech last week said the Venezuelan leader's meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries in the region, including giving safe-haven and material support to Colombian insurgents, has made him a divisive force.

Spokesman McCormack said U.S. officials would await reports from international monitors before commenting on the fairness of Sunday's voting. But he said the Venezuelan people should be commended for the way they conducted themselves on a day in which there were no reported incidents of serious violence.

Despite the conciliatory comments on Venezuela, McCormack made clear the United States is not interested in an overture for dialogue from Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro, the brother of President Fidel Castro who has assumed power in Havana on an acting basis because of the president's illness.

Raul Castro said in an address to Communist party and military officers last week Cuba was ready for negotiations with the United States on the basis of equality, reciprocity, non-interference and mutual respect.

Spokesman McCormack said the Raul Castro overture was misplaced and that he should be reaching out to the Cuban people on terms for a democratic transition. "I think the dialogue that needs to be had is with the Cuban people. You shouldn't get into a position, the Cuban people shouldn't be in a position, of having to substitute one dictator for another. So the dialogue that should be taking place is not between Raul Castro and any group outside, any country outside of Cuba. It's the regime, with the Cuban people, talking about a transition to a democratic form of governance in that country," he said.

McCormack said he did not see how the cause of democracy in Cuba could be furthered by having U.S. officials talk to what he termed a dictator in waiting, who wants to continue a form of government that he said has kept the people of Cuba down for nearly five decades.