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Re Venezuela: Euro-Latin talks step back from democracy

The Oppenheimer Report, reprinted from The Miami Herald

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- What's most surprising about the summit of 33 European and Latin American heads of state that wound down here Friday was not that it turned into a veiled U.S.-bashing conference, but that it dropped its earlier calls for free and clean elections in Latin America.

Just when Venezuela is holding its signature verification drive this weekend in a crucial recall effort, amid widespread fears of fraud by President Hugo Chávez's increasingly authoritarian government, and when Cuba is stepping up its repression of the peaceful opposition, participating heads of state didn't even jointly address these issues.

CONDEMNS ABUSE

The final declaration of the two-day III Summit of Latin America and the European Union, which specifically condemns the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, contains much milder language on democracy and human rights than that of the biregional summit in Madrid in 2002.

The Guadalajara summit's final declaration only says that democracy is ''fundamental for our region's peace and security.'' By comparison, the 2002 biregional summit had committed participating heads of state to allow ''free electoral processes'' and ``clean elections.''

What happened this time?, I asked several Latin American foreign ministers and European officials. Most agreed on one thing: As strange as it might seem, tiny Cuba set much of the agenda.

Cuba and Venezuela, by far the largest delegations here, pretty much dominated the private meetings in which the summit's final ''Political Declaration'' was drafted. European leaders, most of whom came here reluctantly to meet a previous EU commitment to hold this summit, focused their limited time and energies to block only the most outrageous Cuban and Venezuelan proposals.

''The Cubans are speaking all the time,'' a high-ranking European told me about the private meetings among foreign ministers drafting the document. ``They are proposing paragraphs, asking for changes in others, and lobbying to suppress others altogether.''

Meantime, the South Americans were busy advancing parallel negotiations to sign a free-trade agreement with the 25-member European Union by October. Central American presidents or their ministers were in Washington signing their free-trade deal with the United States. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian President Silvio Berlusconi didn't attend.

CUBA IN SPOTLIGHT

For lack of more important news at the summit, Cuba's demands for a strong political declaration condemning U.S. policies made the front pages in Mexico. As I'm writing this in the summit's press room, a Mexican reporter next to me is furiously typing into his computer several paragraphs from the latest Cuban press communiqué. Mexico's largest state university, UNAM, which could have used the occasion to invite the Spanish or French heads of state, chose instead to give its main auditorium to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.

Chávez, who arrived with a 189-member delegation, handed out a two-page confidential letter to several participating heads of state calling for support against an alleged plan by the United States, Colombian paramilitaries and Venezuelan oppositionists ``to destabilize the national government and create the conditions for a foreign intervention.''

As evidence of the alleged plot, Chávez cited the recent arrest of more than 100 alleged Colombian right-wing paramilitaries in Venezuela. But senior Colombian officials say consular interviews with the captured Colombians show that none of them was armed, none had received military training, and some were given uniforms the night before their capture. Most were young peasants who had been offered a job in Venezuela, and taken there as a group of field workers, they say.

Colombian Foreign Minister Carolina Barco told me that she was surprised that Chávez would bring this up at the summit. During a visit last week to Caracas, Chávez had told her -- and later repeated publicly -- that he had concluded that there was no Colombian government involvement in the case, she said.

My guess: Chávez is pumping up this alleged international plot to divert attention from the possible fraud his government may carry out if the opposition wins this weekend's signature-verification drive. It's too soon to tell whether anybody bought his story at this summit, but the climate here certainly played in his favor.



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