U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the policies of Venezuela's populist leader Hugo Chavez are "destroying" the South American country. In congressional testimony, Rice said the ongoing U.S. feud with Mr. Chavez is deflecting attention from the good relationship the Bush administration has established with other leftist governments in the region. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
Bush administration spokesmen have warned that recent moves by the Chavez government, including nationalization of oil and utility assets, would prove to be counterproductive.
But in an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rice went farther, saying the Venezuelan leader's policies were destructive to the country's interests.
Asked by Florida Republican Congressman Connie Mack whether she thought Venezuela was heading toward dictatorship, the secretary of state said there is "an assault on democracy" and significant human rights issues in that country and that it is a major topic in U.S. contacts with other regional governments.
"We raise these issues in the Organization of American States at all times, and with all the states of the region," she said. "I do believe that the president of Venezuela is really destroying his own country, economically, politically, and this is a place with which we've traditionally had very good relations and would like to continue to have good relations."
Despite her comments, Rice said she wanted to avoid getting into a "rhetorical contest" with Mr. Chavez.
She said that takes attention away from what she said was a very positive U.S. agenda in Latin America, and the fact that the Bush administration has worked well with other left-of-center governments, including those of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.
U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been troubled since 2002, when Mr. Chavez accused the Bush administration of supporting a military coup that briefly drove him from power.
U.S. officials denied that allegation. They have since accused Mr. Chavez of, among other things, meddling in the affairs of neighboring countries and engaging in an out-sized military buildup.
The verbal sparring reached a new level last September when, in a policy speech to the U.N. General Assembly, the Venezuelan leader referred to President Bush as "the devil."
In her Congressional testimony, Rice said Mr. Chavez "did himself no good" with the General Assembly speech and undermined what proved to be a losing effort by Venezuela to win a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
She said Venezuela is in a "negative transition" and that the United States, in its aid program to the country, aims to support non-governmental groups trying to resist that trend and preserve democracy.