US plans ways to end Venezuela crisis as fears mount over oil

By Andrew Gumbel
Saturday 11 January 2003 01:00

The United States is preparing a major initiative aimed at defusing Venezuela's political crisis and ending an anti-government strike that has halted the energy exports of the world's fifth-largest oil producer. The Bush administration is expected to call on governments in Latin America, as well as the Organisation of American States, to negotiate an end to the crisis and map out a definitive strategy for dealing with Venezuela's President, Hugo Chavez.

The Washington Post says a new group, to be called the "Friends of Venezuela", will attempt to steer a middle path between President Chavez, who has so far resisted all calls to step down, and the opposition.

The Bush administration was badly stung last April when it enthusiastically backed an anti-Chavez coup, only to see the coup fail within 48 hours. It has been spurred into action now, diplomats say, because of concern about world oil supplies on the eve of a possible war against Iraq and a determination not to be upstaged by left-wing governments in Latin America which have proposed their own intervention strategy in Venezuela.

The loss of Venezuela oil exports, including 1.5 million barrels a day to the US, has already helped push world oil prices over $30 a barrel. A war in the Gulf is expected to cause a further rise, at least in the short term, and there may be longer-lasting supply problems if, say, Saddam Hussein sabotages Iraq's oilfields or attacks those of his neighbours in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

Washington appears to have been alarmed by an intervention proposal from new left-wing President of Brazil, Lula da Silva. He had suggested a regional crisis meeting next week in the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, where another left-wing populist, Lucio Gutierrez, has taken power. Both leaders have attracted suspicion in Washington, particularly in right-wing circles.

The "Friends of Venezuela" group would rather fold Brazil into a broader group that would include the US, Mexico, Chile and possibly Spain. The Friends of Venezuela will look at two proposals: a constitutional amendment opening the way for early elections in Venezuela, or a referendum on President Chavez's rule, which under present conditions could not be held before August.

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