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Senator tries to bring Venezuela dictator to 'political center'

Bill Nelson | TCPalm

January 29, 2005 | Your Jan. 22 editorial [first 'Thumbs Down' item] pointed out that in Venezuela, under President Hugo Chavez, there has been an erosion of democracy and constant America-bashing. And while the editorial correctly noted that I have been highly critical of Chavez's ties to Colombian guerrillas and Fidel Castro, the author very wrongly concluded I am "unfazed" or "turning a blind eye" to his more recent political excesses.

Let me set the record straight: There can be no tolerance of his dictatorial behavior. And what's in the best interest of the United States is to try to bring Chavez back toward the political center. Otherwise, we'll have a terrible mess on our hands with our country's fourth largest oil supplier.

So serious is the potential for such an economic mess that the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, recently asked the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress to examine our preparedness to deal with the very real possibility of a disruption in our oil supply from Venezuela.

Because I share the Republican senator's concern, I traveled to Venezuela with a bipartisan delegation of lawmakers to assess firsthand the troubling political excesses by Chavez there, as well as the chances of improving our relationship.

And just one day after my return, during the confirmation hearings for Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of state, I urged that the administration make it a priority to develop an energy policy that reduces our dependence on unstable foreign suppliers a fact your editorial ignores.

Dr. Rice agreed with me and added that she hopes Chavez will not undertake actions that do further harm to the mutually beneficial energy relationship that the United States and Venezuela share. No one can deny that Chavez has been repressive toward his political opponents and irresponsible in his international conduct.

Unfortunately, he was democratically elected which you also ignore. The Venezuelan people, by solid majorities, have chosen him on separate occasions, including the recent recall referendum, which the Organization of the American States and the Carter Center judged to be legitimate.

As a nation that values freedom, what should we do when a democratically elected leader, like Chavez, starts to dismantle his country's democratic institutions and threatens our economic security?

Be assured that I, as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, will continue to work with President Bush and the new secretary of state to have the U.S. vigorously stand up for democratic principles and American interests in Venezuela.

That's why, during my face-to-face meeting with Chavez, I told him we find some of his policies and actions unacceptable,and our relationship cannot help but be harmed if he continues down his current path.

Nelson is Florida's senior U.S. senator. The Democrat serves on the Senate's Foreign Relations, Armed Services, Commerce and Budget committees.

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