US says has "inoculation" strategy to curb Chavez

By Saul Hudson

02/17/06 -- WASHINGTON ( Reuters )
- Washington wants to curb Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's anti-American influence by lobbying allies to try to expose any anti-democratic policies, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Thursday.

The United States has tried different strategies to counter Chavez, ranging from confronting him to ducking a fight.

In what she termed an "inoculation" strategy, Rice said she had sought support from Europe and other Latin American nations to highlight U.S. charges that the populist Chavez abuses his power to target political opponents and business leaders.

"The international community has just got to be much more active in supporting and defending the Venezuelan people," Rice told a congressional hearing.

She said she had urged governments to go public with criticism of a treason trial against leaders of a movement, Sumate, that failed to oust Chavez in a recall referendum. "This kangaroo trial of Sumate is a disgrace," she said.

And she urged labor movements to back striking workers.

Speaking late on Thursday night, Chavez questioned what he called the confused signals in Washington's policy toward Caracas and dismissed attempts by Rice to isolate his government in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

"She's calling foreign ministers, she's called Spain, she has called Brazil, good friends of ours, and Austria, to warn them about Venezuela, to form a block against Venezuela," Chavez told reporters outside Miraflores Presidential Palace.

"What could be more aggressive? All we can do is resist this imperialist abuse and defeat it," he said.

Flush with revenues from high-priced oil exports and allied with Cuba, Chavez has thrived, is popular in Latin America and has come to symbolize much of the anti-American sentiment in a region that has increasingly opposed U.S. economic policies.

That regional popularity has undercut Rice's efforts to use neighboring nations to curb Chavez, who has used strengthened ties with leftist governments to reject America's free trade ambitions for the hemisphere.

His outspoken criticism of the Bush administration has also angered some U.S. lawmakers.

Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, and influential player on U.S. policy toward Latin America, said Chavez may give $50 million to the Palestinian group Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.

Venezuelan Foreign Ministry officials were not available to comment on those remarks.

Such a move would further strain deteriorating ties between the United States and one of its top oil suppliers after the countries each expelled diplomats this year in a dispute over alleged U.S. espionage.

Chavez has said the United States wants to put sanctions on Venezuela for being a state sponsor of terrorism.

(Additional reporting by Patrick Markey in Caracas)

Reuters 2006.

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