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US Endorses OAS Mediation Efforts to Solve Venezuelan Crisis - 2002-12-17

The United States is expressing growing concern over the political crisis in Venezuela, and appealing for a solution that does not subvert that country's democratic system. A crippling general strike organized by opponents of President Hugo Chavez has disrupted Venezuelan oil shipments to the United States and elsewhere.

The Bush administration is strongly endorsing the Organization of American States' resolution on Venezuela approved late Monday, and in particular its language rejecting any coup d'etat or other unconstitutional alteration of Venezuela's democratic order.

Briefing reporters, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher again stressed U.S. backing for the mediation mission of OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria, and warned that the confrontation between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his political opponents is becoming more acute.

"We recognize the situation in Venezuela is volatile, it's deteriorating rapidly," said Mr. Boucher. "The United States believes that a solution must be found quickly to avoid further polarization that could erupt into violence. We are in close touch with other governments in the hemisphere. And we're all very strongly supporting the efforts of Secretary-General Gaviria down in Venezuela."

Mr. Boucher said the Venezuelan people must to be able to decide "which democratic and constitutional electoral option" would be the most viable to resolve the crisis peacefully.

Administration spokesmen pulled back from a call last week for "early elections" as the only way out of the crisis, in part because of complaints by President Chavez and his supporters that it amounted to taking sides against him, and would violate Venezuela's constitution.

Under Venezuelan law, the next presidential election will not be until 2006, though a referendum can be held at the mid-point of Mr. Chavez' term, which would be in August of next year. The embattled President has refused to resign or hold snap elections but has left open the prospect of a recall vote.

Last April, the U.S. administration came under criticism for being slow to condemn a military coup that briefly deposed Mr. Chavez. The populist leader was restored to power by loyalist officers after two days of detention.

The latest unrest in the country has featured a two-week general strike that has paralyzed the oil industry of the world's fifth largest exporter.

Crude oil prices have already soared beyond $30 a barrel and White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Tuesday the administration is monitoring the situation with concern.

Mr. Fleischer said to ease market conditions, the administration late last week ordered a deferral of additions to the U.S. strategic oil reserve, but he gave no indication that more drastic action such as selling stockpiled oil is imminent.

Venezuela normally supplies the United States with about one and a half million barrels of oil a day about 15 per cent of its import needs.