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US Expresses Full Support for OAS Efforts to Mediate in Venezuela - 2002-12-11

The Bush administration, monitoring political unrest in Venezuela with growing concern, is again appealing for support for Organization of American States' mediation efforts and for a resolution involving an electoral process. It is also condemning attacks on the news media attributed to both supporters and opponents of embattled president Hugo Chavez.

U.S. concern about the situation in Venezuela was underscored late Tuesday by the State Department, which authorized a voluntary departure of non-essential U.S. diplomatic personnel and embassy dependents from the country and warned private Americans to defer all travel to Venezuela for the time being.

The U.S. travel warning the second issued since last Friday, cited a deteriorating political and security situation in the country and severe shortages of food and fuel stemming from the general strike begun by opponents of President Chavez early last week.

Though it's been a critic of Mr. Chavez's populist policies, the Bush administration has sought to avoid the appearance of taking sides in the latest turmoil, which has slashed oil shipments by Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, and roiled the already nervous markets.

Briefing reporters, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer again underlined U.S. support for the mission of OAS Secretary General César Gaviria, who has been in Caracas for several days trying to mediate political settlement between the president and his opponents.

"We reiterate complete support for the Organization of American States Secretary General Cesar Gaviria's efforts to mediate a peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral solution to Venezuela's crisis," said Mr. Fleischer. "We note that there have been many clear statements that have been made for the secretary's mission in Caracas issued by fellow OAS member states and the chairman of the OAS permanent council. The president calls on all sides to act responsibly, to act peacefully, and to continue the dialogue process and to reject violence."

The State Department meanwhile said it was troubled over what it said were efforts by both opponents and supporters of President Chavez to intimidate the news media. It said it fully agreed with the statement by the OAS chief Monday night condemning what he termed clear violations of the freedom of expression.

Mr. Chavez supporters have staged rallies outside the offices of private TV channels seen as opposing the president, while Chavez's opponents were accused of firing shots late Monday at the building occupied by the state-run TV.

Labor, business and opposition groups called the general strike to demand an early referendum on the Chavez presidency. Voters are not due to go to the polls until next August when a recall election is to be held at the mid-term of Mr. Chavez's current six-year term.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker expressed hope the OAS mediation effort can reach consensus on an electoral path that will move Venezuela past its current crisis.