Tabassum Zakaria / Washington Post – 2005-06-05 23:43:39
(May 31, 2005) — President Bush met a prominent opponent of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the White House on Tuesday in a show of support that could anger the firebrand leader of a major US oil supplier.
Maria Corina Machado, a founder of Sumate, a citizens rights organization, helped promote an August referendum against Chavez and still faces a possible jail term of up to 16 years along with her colleague Alejandro Plaz.
Called a “traitor” by Chavez, she was accused by a Venezuelan state prosecutor last year of conspiracy after her organization received a grant from the US Congress-funded National Endowment for Democracy, which promotes democracy. Her trial is still pending.
“He (Bush) said that he, as well as many other leaders around the world, is very worried about the information regarding the violations on the part of Venezuelan government to the democratic principles and to the Venezuelan constitution,” Machado told reporters at the White House.
Chavez has accused the National Endowment for Democracy of spearheading US government attempts to topple him, which Washington has strongly denied. Venezuela is a major supplier of oil to the United States.
Bush and Machado discussed “the current situation confronting Venezuela’s at-risk democratic institutions,” a senior US administration official said on condition of anonymity.
“They discussed the important role that Sumate is performing in the defense of the constitutional rights of all Venezuelans with particular emphasis on Sumate’s work to safeguard the integrity and transparency of all Venezuelans’ right to vote,” the US official said.
Bush’s show of support for the opposition came days after the United States angered Chavez by rejecting Venezuela’s initial efforts to extradite a Cuban exile wanted for a 1976 airliner bombing that killed 73 people.
Chavez says Washington will be backing terrorism if it fails to hand over Luis Posada Carriles, who escaped from a Caracas jail in 1985 and who holds Venezuelan citizenship.
The Venezuelan leader, who calls Bush “Mr. Danger,” has repeatedly accused the United States of supporting his overthrow and has threatened to cut off oil supplies if it should try to oust him.
The meeting with Bush brought furious reaction from pro-Chavez lawmakers in the Venezuelan National Assembly.
“There they are sitting together, holding hands, smiling, one hiding a terrorist and the other backing a coup,” said lawmaker Cilia Flores, who called for Machado’s prosecution. “She went there to receive instructions, to see what other mischief they can get up to in Venezuela,” she said. Machado and her Sumate organization reject charges they have plotted to overthrow Chavez.
It was Machado’s first visit to the White House and she said there had been no promise at the Bush meeting of U.S. funds to her group, which has received Congress-allocated financing in recent years. “He (Bush) wanted to hear from us — how do we see the civil society movement in Venezuela,” she said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. policy on Venezuela is “of being open to any progress that they want to make, being open to having a decent relationship with Venezuela. But at this point, I’m afraid that hasn’t been possible.”
(Additional reporting by Patrick Markey in Caracas)
Copyright © 2005 Reuters Limited
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.