Montgomery Politician Rescinds Offer to Envoy

By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007

Montgomery County Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) invited Venezuela's ambassador this month to meet community leaders and possibly get involved in funding local social programs, only to find himself yesterday at the center of a heated international political debate.

Elrich withdrew his invitation late yesterday in the face of protest from local Venezuelan and Cuban immigrants who oppose the leftist government of President Hugo Ch¿vez. Before he did, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who is in Israel on a trade mission, issued a sharp rebuke of the proposed partnership.

After pulling the plug on the visit, Elrich expressed surprise at the outcry. "This is silly," he said, because U.S. government leaders meet with representatives of countries they disagree with all the time. "There's no uproar about it. Nobody says, 'Don't you dare meet with them.' "

But critics of the planned visit said they were astonished by Elrich's invitation because of what they call Ch¿vez's anti-democratic policies. Manny Hidalgo, executive director of the Latino Economic Development Corp., said an official relationship with Venezuela's government would be anathema.

"Why would we want them to be in any way associated with Montgomery County?" said Hidalgo, a Cuban immigrant who lives in Wheaton. "Montgomery County likes to think of itself as a very progressive county, very open to new ideas, but you can go too far."

Elrich said that local nonprofit groups interested in meeting with Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador in Washington, would still do so, although not with the help of the county.

"It needs to take place under a different umbrella so there's no confusion that Montgomery County is taking a position on the Venezuelan government," he said.

Numerous worthy social programs don't get county funding, Elrich said, and the oil-rich South American nation "can do some good." Ch¿vez, an outspoken critic of President Bush, has tried to build goodwill in the United States by providing discounted heating oil to low-income families in New York and Massachusetts through the government-controlled company Citgo.

The visit, planned for Oct. 23, was conceived after Elrich met a representative from the embassy at a District rally to support domestic workers. They talked about poverty and the health-care needs of the county, and Elrich said the diplomat expressed interest in learning more about Montgomery's community services.

In an e-mail to more than a dozen community leaders Tuesday, including to Leggett's directors for economic development and health and human services, a legislative aide to Elrich described the visit as part of a "project currently underway to promote future socio-economic partnerships for the development of a common goal to address community needs."

"The first step toward this goal is to convene a meeting to introduce the Ambassador" to the county and "to begin a dialogue on how to productively address those needs," the e-mail said.

A spokeswoman for the Venezuelan Embassy, Indira Calles, said yesterday that the visit "is on the table," but "there is no confirmation, so we can not talk about it."

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