U.S.-Venezuelan Relations in Spotlight at Summit

The leaders of more than 30 Western Hemisphere nations, including President Bush, are arriving at the Argentine seaside resort of Mar del Plata for Friday's Summit of the Americas. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an outspoken critic of Mr. Bush, will be attending; and thousands of demonstrators are converging on the area.

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Security is tight both on land and sea around Argentina's coastal city Mar del Plata. That's where thousands of demonstrators opposed to President Bush are converging to protest the fourth Summit of the Americas. As the leaders of more than 30 Western Hemisphere nations arrive, President Bush's biggest critic is likely to be Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Not since Fidel Castro has the United States faced such an anti-American firebrand. From Mar del Plata, NPR's Julie McCarthy examines the state of US-Venezuelan relations.

(Soundbite of demonstrators)

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

As demonstrators gear up to protest everything from the war in Iraq to US free trade, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says he'll join their march Friday. Opposing the creation of a Washington-inspired free-trade zone that would encompass the whole hemisphere is just one of Chavez's many differences with the US. When he's not attacking capitalism, Chavez has further strained US relations by charging that the Bush administration is trying to topple him. The Venezuelan leader, briefly ousted in a 2002 coup, recently repeated the claim to the BBC.

(Soundbite from BBC)

President HUGO CHAVEZ (Venezuela): (Through Translator) A coup attempt has already happened and prepared by the US government. The George W. Bush government planned a coup d'etat against us. What do they want? Our oil. Like Iraq--the invasion of Iraq was due to oil. The threats are because of oil. We are certain that this will not occur, but we have to denounce it.

McCARTHY: US ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield says he's certain it won't occur either and restates the US position.

Ambassador WILLIAM BROWNFIELD (US Ambassador to Venezuela): And that is that the United States government has never planned, is not now planning and never will plan an invasion, a coup d'etat, an assassination here in Venezuela. That is US policy.

McCARTHY: With his oil wealth and populist appeal, Chavez has been promoting deeper economic integration within Latin America in part to reduce US influence. He signed trade deals with nine Caribbean governments to supply Venezuelan oil under terms favorable to the cash-strapped countries. He's even offered discounted oil to the urban poor of American cities. Alberto Quiros is a Caracas-based consultant and the former head of Shell Venezuela. He says the so-called Chavez revolution is being eyed with interest by quite a few countries in the region.

Mr. ALBERTO QUIROS (Caracas-Based Consultant): We have a lot of elections between now and 2006: Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico. All these countries have within their political systems some leftist movements that sympathize with Chavez. So if this disease is catching, you might find that you have a big problem in the hemisphere.

McCARTHY: Fredrick Welsh(ph), a political scientist at Venezuela's Simon Bolivar University, says that while Chavez appeals to Latin America's 100 million poor, the socialist leader is not having much influence over the economic giants of the region.

Mr. FREDRICK WELSH (Simon Bolivar University): Argentina is stepping up exports to the US and stepping up its commercial relations; so is Brazil.

McCARTHY: The executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce for Brazil, Sergio Raposo, says leftist President "Lula" da Silva, a friend of Chavez, has, in fact, cultivated ties with Wall Street and Washington.

Mr. SERGIO RAPOSO (Executive Director, American Chamber of Commerce for Brazil): The United States is by far our main partner in trade. Venezuela is the friendly neighbor and we do have a flow of trade, but it's not even 1/20th of that with the United States. The Brazilian government weighs that very carefully.

McCARTHY: Analysts note that even the multibillion-dollar oil trade between Venezuela and the United States has hardly been affected despite Chavez's anti-American rhetoric. Ambassador Brownfield says the US does not want to see Venezuelan oil, which makes up 12 percent of US oil imports, dry up.

Amb. BROWNFIELD: This is an important energy relationship. I hope we can maintain it.

McCARTHY: Venezuela's quest for nuclear energy is not as welcomed and promises to aggravate already tense US-Venezuelan relations, but President Chavez says his country has the right to develop nuclear power for peaceful means and will not fall into what he calls the trap of being demonized for it. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Mar del Plata, Argentina.

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