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Venezuela: Sen. Nelson rails on Chávez, policies 'unfriendly' to U.S.

By Richard Brand, Miami Herald

CARACAS - Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, at the end of a three-day visit to Venezuela on Saturday, blasted President Hugo Chávez for aiding Colombian guerrillas, blocking a recall referendum sought by the opposition and ignoring a flourishing black market for passports and other official documents that could fall into the hands of terrorists.

''We may reach the point where the U.S. has to treat this government as a hostile and unfriendly government to the U.S. and the U.S. interests,'' said Nelson, a Democratic member of the Senates Foreign Relations Committee.

Nelson described a tense conversation he had Saturday morning with Foreign Minister Jesús Pérez over allegations that Venezuela was assisting Colombian guerrillas such as the FARC.

Pérez ''said Venezuela had no ties to the guerrilla groups. I told him flat up that I respect your right to your opinion but that I disagree with you, and that is based on complete information, including intelligence that I have seen,'' Nelson said. ``He was silent after that.''

Asked later to describe that intelligence, Nelson said: ``Obviously, I cant share the sources, but I can share the conclusion. We have plenty of evidence of participation by representatives of the Venezuelan government when the FARC is given safe haven to come across the border and communication with the FARC both inside Venezuela and in Colombia.''

Venezuelan officials denied those allegations.

''U.S. intelligence has failed in the past. I wouldnt trust 100 percent what American intelligence said,'' said Bernardo Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador in Washington, reached by phone. ``There is no evidence of Venezuela helping the FARC.''

Alvarez also denied that Chávez was acting to block a recall effort against him.

INCREASING FRICTION

Chávez has inflamed tensions with the United States with his fierce anti-American rhetoric and close ties to Cuban President Fidel Castro. Earlier this week, Chávez expressed support for the insurgents battling U.S. soldiers in Iraq and blamed President Bush for ``imperialist aggression.''

''The fault for all these deaths has a name: George W. Bush,'' Chávez said during the Tuesday night speech.

The criticism of Chávez by yet another top Democrat undermines Chávezs frequent claim that it is Bush and his Republican followers who are primarily responsible for his beef with the United States. A month ago, presidential candidate John Kerry issued a statement advocating tougher policies on Venezuela.

Nelson and Pérez also discussed U.S. presidential politics, the senator said. According to Nelson, Pérez said that he did not think Kerry would be tough on Venezuela if he were elected president and chalked up the candidates harsh statement as election-year pandering to Cuban-American voters, many of whom abhor the Castro-Chávez alliance.

'I said, `I want to disabuse you of that because I know Sen. Kerry, and he in fact does believe what was stated on his website,' Nelson recalled. 'I said, `Let me tell you something else: Sen. Kerry is not going to get most of that Cuban-American vote. Most of that Cuban-American vote will go to President Bush, so he does not need to pander to that vote.' ''

Nelson said, however, that Kerry would still seek Cuban-American votes. ``He may not get a majority of the Cuban-American vote, but he will get a good portion.''

Nelson spoke to The Herald by phone on his way to the Caracas airport. He was heading to Miami, where he was to campaign alongside Kerry.

Venezuelas opposition, which is pushing for a presidential recall referendum, says Chávez is trying to impose an authoritarian regime. His supporters say he is sticking up for the poor in a country where, for decades, successive governments have squandered a vast oil wealth.

NELSON NOT OPTIMISTIC

Nelson said he hopes the opposition will be allowed to have their recall vote and encouraged both sides to continue with negotiations, which have been observed by the Organization of American States and the Carter Center. He said he was not optimistic about the process. ''But I wouldnt be surprised if Chávez doesnt permit the referendum,'' Nelson said.

Nelson also expressed concern about the widespread illegal sale of Venezuelan passports, which he said could wind up in terrorist hands. He said he told Pérez, ``You have to be doing something more about this, and you arent.''

Alvarez, the Venezuelan envoy, said later that Venezuela is indeed concerned about the phony passports and was acting to stop their sale.



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