At the Venezuelan Embassy, traditional Christmas celebrations call for holiday trees and Santa Claus accompanied by aguinaldos, gaitas music and the aroma of hallacas, corn tamales stuffed with meat, chicken and raisins. But the merrymaking was set aside this year. Ambassador Alfredo Toro Hardy and his sons, Alfredo, 19, and Bernardo, 14, spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday organizing relief supplies that have been pouring into the embassy since mudslides and flash floods devastated their country's Caribbean coast two weeks ago. So did other diplomats, their children and community members, working from 7 in the morning until late at night.

"We had a lot of volunteers spend their Christmas with us packaging--not only Venezuelans but American citizens," said the ambassador.

"All feel this frustration, of being far away from the country at such a difficult moment, and we are trying to be useful in working as much as possible to send donations," he added. "Just when we thought the 20th century has lapsed and a balance could be made between the good and the bad, the worst natural disaster of the century occurred just a few days before the end of the century, changing the whole panorama."

The secretary general of the Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in Caracas yesterday that the catastrophe could rank as Latin America's greatest natural disaster of the 20th century. He said he has received estimates of 20,000 to 50,000 dead.

"President [Hugo] Chavez has been able to transmit the need for solidarity and to send a message of tranquillity to the population. He has conveyed to Venezuelans that there is a sense of purpose and all of us have to be reunited in the effort of reconstructing the country, and that message has no political colors or implications," Toro Hardy said when asked if the crisis would affect Chavez's leadership and popularity.

Toro Hardy said he is extremely grateful for the generosity of the American government, the U.S. corporate world and individuals around the country. President Clinton has committed $20 million in materials, $3 million in relief supplies and help from the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild bridges and infrastructure--in addition to several rescue teams, seven helicopters and six transport planes. American oil companies have donated several million dollars, tons of canned food, medical supplies, antibiotics and medications.

"We are very grateful for the help," he added. "It would be equally important to have U.S. support in multilateral financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. We would appreciate to see Venezuela's friends form a group as they did after Hurricane Mitch [last year in Central America], in which the United States would play a fundamental role."

Prisoner in Pakistan

The saga of former Pakistani Information Minister Mushahid Hussain continues. After being held under house arrest immediately after the Oct. 12 coup, Hussain was picked up by security men Dec. 14 and taken to another location, where he was placed in solitary confinement. On Christmas Eve, his family was granted the right to visit him for an hour. Hussain, a graduate of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and former editor of an English daily, the Muslim, told his family that he had not yet been interrogated. A U.S. official working on his case said that no charges have been brought against him.

"The speculation in Islamabad is that they are trying to get testimony from him about other people," the official said. He has not had access to a lawyer, and the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad has raised Hussain's case with the government, he added.

Pakistan's National Accountability Bureau said 10 days ago that it had no case against Hussain and was not proceeding against him on charges of corruption. For almost two weeks, no government or security branch would say whether he was in custody. But a Pakistani diplomat in Washington said yesterday that Hussain is in police custody and being investigated this week by the Interior Ministry.

"This is the inquiry phase; he is under investigation, and if there are any charges they will be submitted," the diplomat added.

Several ministers placed under house arrest since the coup are part of an inquiry by the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Hussain's brother, a lawyer residing in Washington said there is a "danger of trumped up charges and kangaroo proceedings." The brother, Mowahid H. Shah, said Hussain does not even own a house and was singled out by a government "claiming to be cleaning its stables."