Three United States Senators met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and US ambassador William Brownfield yesterday in an effort to mend the strained relations between the two countries.

Republican Lincoln Davenport Chafee from Rhode Island, Democrat Bill Nelson from Florida, and Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat stressed the need for closer ties, both economically and in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.

In a press conference in the US embassy in Caracas, Dodd, a senior member of the U.S. Foreign Relations Committee, commented, “We want to see Washington turn a new page in its relations with [President Chávez’s] government,” adding, “It is not worthwhile to continue speaking of what is in the past. I hope that we can overcome this.”

Venezuela is the 4th largest oil provider to the United States, supplying the country with 13% of its petroleum. Although Chávez has forged new relations with China and Russia in hopes of breaking Venezuela’s dependence on the United States, the US remains the number one buyer of Venezuelan petroleum. Dodd reaffirmed this relationship, emphasizing that “Both countries need each other economically,” noting that it is “critically important have that continuing flow of oil.”

Since Chávez was elected President in 1998 relations have been tense between the two nations. In addition to being routinely referred to as a dictator and criticized in the North American press for his close ties with Cuban President Fidel Castro, Chávez has been accused of sympathizing with Colombian guerrillas, often referred to as “terrorists” by the US government. Washington was one of three nations to recognize the interim government of Carmona when Chávez was overthrown in a short-lived coup d’état in April, 2002.

Of the visiting Senators, Senator Bill Nelson has been very harsh against the Chavez government in the past. On April 24 of 2004, Sen. Nelson said on the U.S. Senate floor, “If [US-Venezuelan relations] do not improve soon, I worry that we may eventually reach the point where we have to treat this Venezuelan Government as an unfriendly government that is hostile to U.S. interests.”

Chávez has condemned the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, accusing the United States of “fighting terrorism with terrorism”. He is also promoting the concept of a “multi-polar” world, criticizing US economic and political dominance.

In a new turn of events, Dodd said that Chávez has “demonstrated he was Venezuela’s legitimate democratically elected president by winning a national referendum [on August 15th, 2004]...We know there have been problems between the two countries, but today is a new year and we are here to find out if we can begin a new relationship,” adding, “It is not worthwhile to continue speaking of what is in the past. I hope we can overcome this.”

During a meeting with Chávez that US ambassador William Brownfield also attended, the polemic capture of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) “foreign minister,” Rodrigo Granda, was also discussed. The guerrilla and drug trafficking “have been points that have deteriorated relations between our governments.

I hope we can establish an understanding to better it,” said Senator Bill Nelson. “What President Chávez has told us is that there is a new cooperation with the Colombian government in not allowing the FARC sanctuary,” Nelson added.

The Senators promised to speak with newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in what Dodd referred to as an effort to “take steps to improve ties with the Chávez government.”

They also offered the services of the Peace Corps in Venezuela in order to help reduce poverty in this country. “Chávez did not say yes, he did not say no,” Nelson reported, “But it is out there for discussion, on the table.”

Chávez did not comment on the meeting.
After Venezuela, the US delegation will also visit Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil.