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Words and Deeds in Venezuela

Saturday, January 29, 2005; Page A24

The Post aptly pointed out in a Jan. 14 editorial that in Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez, democratic institutions have been under stress. But the editorial wrongly concluded that I or my colleagues regard these developments with nonchalance.

In fact, my colleagues Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) and I traveled to Venezuela during the second week of January to assess Venezuela's democracy and the likelihood of a disruption in our relationship with the fourth-largest oil supplier to the United States.

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There is no question in my mind that many of Mr. Chavez's actions have been provocative. But the reality is that he was democratically elected -- a fact The Post seems to ignore.

Mr. Chavez's rule highlights a broader U.S. foreign policy challenge: how to respond to democratically elected leaders whose actions challenge established democratic institutions. I believe that the institutions of democracy must be nurtured and encouraged, regardless of who is in office. They should not be relegated to the shadows simply because we don't share the political views of an elected leader of the moment. That means we must keep the door open to dialogue.

In the case of Mr. Chavez, dialogue may serve as a restraint on his most controversial policies. We know that isolating him has not. Mr. Chavez had encouraging words to say to us about wanting to reengage with the United States. We welcomed those words but told him that the course of our relationship will be decided by whether he lives up to the principles of democracy.

But building a better relationship is a two-way street. To that end, we have urged the administration to reconsider its failed approach toward Venezuela.

There is no denying that a healthy U.S.-Venezuela relationship is in our interests. Such a relationship is more likely if we keep lines of communication open while making clear our differences with aspects of Chavez rule. Our visit to Venezuela was an effort to do that. I hope the Bush administration will follow suit to test whether words can be translated into deeds on both sides.


U.S. Senator (D-Conn.)


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