Rice, Venezuelan Envoy Trade Barbs

By Matthew Lee
Associated Press
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

PANAMA CITY, June 4 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Venezuela's foreign minister on Monday fired verbal broadsides at each other here over the closure of a television station in Venezuela that has been critical of the government.

Rice said the decision by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez not to renew the license of Radio Caracas Television, or RCTV, was his "sharpest and most acute" move yet against democracy.

Venezuela's top diplomat, Nicolás Maduro, then accused Rice of hypocrisy and unacceptable meddling in his nation's affairs. He compared the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and secret prisons elsewhere to something not seen since "the time of Hitler."

The dispute between Washington and Caracas took center stage at a gathering of foreign ministers of the Organization of American States, a meeting intended to focus on environment and development issues.

Rice urged the OAS to send its secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, to Venezuela to look into the closing of the station and deliver a full report on his findings.

"Freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of conscience are not a thorn in the side of government," Rice told the ministers. "Disagreeing with your government is not unpatriotic and most certainly should not be a crime in any country, especially a democracy."

The Venezuelan government has said RCTV, which was aligned with the opposition, supported a short-lived coup against Chávez in 2002 and consistently violated telecommunications regulations.

It was unclear whether the OAS meeting would produce a statement of support for freedom of the press and expression in the Americas. Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala and Chile have previously expressed support for RCTV.

On Monday in Panama, newspapers and a consortium of media groups published ads saying, "Without freedom of expression, there is no liberty, not in Venezuela or any other part of the world."

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