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US Criticizes 'Inflammatory' Remarks by Venezuela's Chavez - 2003-02-24

The U.S. government is criticizing Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for what it terms "inflammatory" remarks aimed at leaders of the two-month general strike against his government. Two key strike leaders are facing criminal charges, including treason and rebellion.

Though the general strike against Mr. Chavez faded out earlier this month, the same cannot be said for political tensions in the country. And the State Department is expressing particular concern about the president's verbal attacks on strike leaders, who he said Sunday should be tried for the damage the work stoppage caused to the country's economy.

Despite an agreement last week between the government and the opposition to tone down accusations and avoid violence, a key figure in the strike and business association leader Carlos Fernandez was arrested last Thursday and put under house arrest.

A second strike leader, labor federation chief Carlos Ortega, went into hiding after a warrant was issued for his arrest.

In a speech Sunday on state-sponsored television, President Chavez said strike leaders should be tried as terrorists and saboteurs for the failed effort to force him from power.

At a State Department briefing, spokesman Philip Reeker urged the parties in Venezuela to uphold the terms of last week's agreement.

He said the United States is concerned that the "heightened political rhetoric" has contributed to acts of violence in recent days. He also called on Mr. Chavez to leave the issue of strike-related prosecutions to the country's judicial system.

"We would note that according to Venezuela's constitution, the judiciary, not the president, decides what charges to bring in criminal cases," said Mr. Reeker. "And inflammatory statements such as those attributed to President Chavez are not helpful in advancing the dialogue between the government of Venezuela and the opposition, and bringing, of course, a peaceful resolution to the current state of affairs."

The spokesman said the Venezuelan government must respect the constitutional rights of the two strike leaders.

He also urged both sides to continue the political dialogue being facilitated by Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria and supported by the informal six-nation "Friends of Venezuela" group that includes the United States.

In his remarks Sunday, President Chavez suggested that international critics, including Mr. Gaviria and "Friends of Venezuela" member states Spain, Colombia and the United States, were interfering in his country's sovereignty, and said they had had little to say when he was briefly ousted from power by the military last year.

A spokesman for the opposition accused Mr. Chavez is using the argument of sovereignty as a cover for authoritarianism.