Obama and Chávez Start Sparring Early

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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 19, 2009

BOGOTA, Colombia, Jan. 18 -- In an interview shown in the past week on the Spanish-language network Univision, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama said that Venezuela's firebrand president, Hugo Chávez, has hindered progress in Latin America, and he expressed concern that Chávez's leftist government has assisted Colombia's biggest guerrilla movement, a group the United States considers a terrorist organization. Chávez responded this weekend by saying that Obama had "the same stench" as President Bush, a frequent target of Chávez's remarks.

"There is still time" for Obama to correct his views, the Venezuelan leader said, but he added: "No one should say that I threw the first stone at Obama. He threw it at me."

The interview with the president-elect, shown in two segments that aired Sunday and last Tuesday, included Obama's most extensive comments to date about Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico -- countries that are expected to require swift attention from the new administration. Mexico is convulsed by drug violence that is spilling into the United States; Cuba's longtime leader, Fidel Castro, is suffering from a serious undisclosed illness; and Chávez's government is reinforcing ties with such U.S. adversaries as Iran and, authorities in Bogota say, Colombian rebels.

Obama said his administration is open to starting talks with Chávez to improve relations, which have frayed badly since the Bush administration celebrated Chávez's brief overthrow at the hands of rebellious military officers in 2002. But in the 13-minute interview aired by Univision, Obama said Chávez had "been a force that has interrupted progress in the region."

He then raised the issue of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a 45-year-old rebel group loathed by Colombians for carrying out selective assassinations, attacks on civilian targets and mass kidnappings. Last year, Colombian authorities released internal rebel documents that outlined how Chávez and his close allies had assisted the group in an effort to isolate Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, the Bush administration's closest ally in Latin America. The Chávez government denies it helps the FARC, as the group is known.

"We need to be firm when we see this news, that Venezuela is exporting terrorist activities or supporting malicious entities like the FARC," Obama said. "This creates problems that are not acceptable."

Chávez reacted Saturday and earlier in the week to Obama's remarks, which were seen in Venezuela on Univision's Web site. The network did not release a transcript of the interview, in which Obama's answers are simultaneously translated into Spanish.

"He said I'm an obstacle for progress in Latin America," Chávez said in a speech to supporters in Caracas. "Therefore, it must be removed, this obstacle, right?"

The Venezuelan leader said that Obama is following orders from dark forces inside "the empire," as he refers to the United States. "If he doesn't obey the orders of the empire, they'll kill him," Chávez said, without offering details or proof.

According to a script repeated in Chávez's frequent speeches, the United States has a diabolical plan to topple his government and steal the country's immense oil reserves. The Venezuelan government accuses leading opponents of being in on the plan.

Obama offered conciliatory words to Cuba's government, which has recently been led by Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother. He said he wants to loosen restrictions so Cuban exiles can travel back to the island and send money to relatives, casting the moves as a first step in improving relations with the communist regime, though he said he would not end a U.S. economic embargo.

"This is a good place to begin," Obama said. "It doesn't eliminate the embargo, but it does send a signal that we are open to holding conversations." He said, though, that talks are subject to Cuba implementing democratic reforms.

The president-elect also lauded Mexican President Felipe Calderón for leading a hard fight against drug cartels and said the United States needs to help by stopping the flow of illegal weapons into Mexico.


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