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Venezuela: Dust-Up Roils Staid Halls of the OAS

The Washington Post (Diplomatic Dispatches)

By Nora Boustany, Wednesday, April 7, 2004; Page A25 - Two of the more reserved diplomats in Washington heated up as if affected by the spring thaw last week in a confrontation filled with cynicism and vitriol. Echoes are still reverberating around town of the impassioned argument between Jorge Valero, the Venezuelan ambassador to the Organization of American States, and his American counterpart, John F. Maisto The men faced off at a regular session of the OAS Permanent Council last Wednesday. A video of the dispute can be seen on the OAS Web site, www.oas.org.

It began with an accusation by Valero, who charged that Washington was funneling millions of dollars to opponents of Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chavez, in an effort to oust him.

Maisto, whose customary calm gave way to searing sarcasm and unabashed indignation, fired back with a long list of infractions and violations committed by the Caracas government. He called Valero's charge "irresponsible and baseless" and said it was aimed at masking a controversial struggle over Chavez's legitimacy at home.

Chavez faces a campaign by a coalition of opponents for a referendum on whether he should remain in office. Both Valero and Maisto, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, read from prepared texts and seemed well armed for the verbal fusillade, which had other diplomats sneering from the sidelines, according to one OAS official who witnessed the showdown. The diplomats were seated directly across from each other at a long table, which kept them far enough apart to avoid a total loss of decorum.

While Maisto referred to "vulgar personal insults against my president" by the Caracas government, "Valero was reading passionately, but he was ranting, getting a little red and hot under the collar," the official said. "Maisto's reaction was measured, mocking and biting at times," the witness added.

"Frankly, when the government of Venezuela characterizes this organization as 'just another ministry of the United States,' I'm not sure whom they're attempting to provoke -- just us, or all delegations," Maisto said in reference to what he said were "unjust attacks on the independence of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights."

Valero demanded that foreign intervention cease. He said it was in the form of $5 million channeled over the past two years to Chavez opponents through U.S. government entities such as the National Endowment for Democracy, which receives funding from Congress.

Maisto defended the work of the endowment, citing praise for it by champions of freedom around the world. But he used the words of former Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet to characterize those who have criticized the endowment in the past. "There is this external aggressor," he read from a statement by Pinochet on Jan. 2, 1988, "who for the sake of revenge or disinformation seeks to come to the aid of those who are hawking their country away for millions of dollars. Our people, I am sure, totally reject this interference, which is unacceptable." Pinochet, Maisto noted, was reacting to an announcement that Congress had approved NED funding for a peaceful transition to democracy in Chile. Several diplomats in the room could not suppress their smiles, the witness said. Round two next week?



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