U.S. Confirms Its Role in Venezuelan Negotiations

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has begun playing an active, behind-the-scenes role to help resolve the political unrest in Venezuela, amid growing U.S. concern about an oil shortage if there is war in Iraq.

The U.S. participation in brokering an agreement between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his opponents was confirmed Friday by the White House.

The 40-day standoff, with widespread strikes organized by Chavez's political foes, has crippled Venezuela's economy. And it has halted petroleum exports, including more than 1.5 million barrels of oil to the United States per day -- about 15% of total American imports.

In hopes of ending the stalemate and bringing about early elections in Venezuela, U.S. diplomats led by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell are working with the Organization of American States and its member nations.

OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria has been mediating the talks in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. Gaviria's goal, which the White House is backing, is to form a "friends of Venezuela" group that can help develop a compromise to the country's conflict.

The growing U.S. role -- first reported Friday by the Washington Post -- signals that President Bush has overcome his reluctance to get involved in the South American country.

In April, amid a short-lived coup against Chavez, the United States was accused of encouraging the plotters, reviving memories of a long and controversial history of U.S. involvement on the continent.

Chavez's populist, left-leaning ideology -- and his anti-U.S. rhetoric -- had not endeared him to the administration. But the White House denied meddling in Venezuela's affairs.

On Friday, however, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said: "The United States remains deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in Venezuela. The severe damage being caused to Venezuela's economy, as well as the increasing likelihood of violence and civil conflict, requires a solution."

The U.S. hopes for a "peaceful, democratic, constitutional and electoral solution," he said. "We have been and are working closely with Secretary-General Gaviria and hemispheric partners to engage diplomatically under the OAS umbrella in support of Gaviria."

Fleischer emphasized that "an electoral solution is the direction the United States sees."

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