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US Hopeful 'Friends of Venezuela' Forum Can Solve Crisis - 2003-01-16

The Bush administration say it has high hopes that a newly-formed group of six countries can help Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria in his effort to bring about a peaceful end to Venezuela's political crisis.

The informal grouping includes the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Spain and Portugal and it is intended to give more political backing to the OAS secretary-general in his thus far unsuccessful effort to mediate the political standoff between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the opposition.

First proposed by Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, the six-nation initiative was announced late Wednesday in the Ecuadorian capital Quito, where regional leaders had gathered for the inauguration of that country's new president Lucio Guttierrez.

So far there are no specific plans for the group to meet, or what role it will play in Secretary-General Gaviria's mediation efforts.

But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says its founding underlines regional concern about the situation in Venezuela, where a seven-week-old general strike by Chavez opponents has brought the country's economy including its critical oil industry to a near standstill.

"It's been formed to support the secretary-general's efforts to promote a negotiated solution to Venezuela's ongoing political crisis," said Mr. Boucher. "We think this is a very important step that underscores widespread concern in the Hemisphere with the urgency of the situation in Venezuela. It greatly strengthens the secretary-general of the Organization of American States' efforts to help Venezuela resolve the crisis in a peaceful, constitutional, democratic and electoral manner. We look forward to being part of his group and beginning its important work."

The Bush administration was initially cool to the Brazilian initiative, but as the Venezuelan crisis worsened, officials here decided it as one of the United States' few available options to boost the OAS mediation effort which it has supported from its start last November.

The Bush administration has been a critic of the populist policies of Venezuelan President Chavez, and it came under criticism in Caracas and elsewhere last April for its contacts with military officers who briefly deposed the president, himself a former Army officer.

Mr. Chavez has rejected opposition demands that he step down immediately and hold new elections, just two years into his six-year term. The Bush administration has endorsed an electoral solution to the crisis under terms acceptable to Mr. Chavez and his opponents.