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The Bush administration has continued to pursue a strategy of containment with respect to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías, most recently in private conversations between US President George W. Bush and other world leaders. In previous criticisms of Venezuela, the US has not provoked the desired reaction among Latin American leaders, many of whom are vocally supportive of Chávez.

In a phone conversation with Argentinean President Nestor Kirchner, and in meetings with Mexican President Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, US President George W. Bush articulated his preoccupations with Venezuela.

According to a senior White House official, speaking to Agence France-Press (AFP) on condition of anonymity, Bush communicated to Kirchner his uneasiness with some of Chávez’ “attitudes,” to which Kirchner is reported to have responded that he would continue “dialoguing with the democratic government of Venezuela,” with which Argentina has signed various commercial and energy accords.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that Bush also communicated this unease to Mexican and Canadian leaders while meeting at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas last week to discuss trade, immigration, and security issues.

According to McClellan, “One of the things that was discussed last week with our partners from Mexico and Canada was the importance of supporting democratic institutions in our own hemisphere.” “We’ve expressed our concerns when it comes to the situation in Venezuela,” he continued, adding that those concerns remain. “Those are discussions we discuss with others, as well. And it’s important to work through the Organization of American States to address some of those issues,” said McClellan.

In a communiqué sent to regional leaders on January 23rd, 2005 the US called for these countries to pressure Venezuela to stop supporting guerillas in neighboring Colombia. In mid-December, 2004 Rodrigo Granda, the “foreign minister” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was kidnapped in Venezuela and smuggled to Colombia where he is currently imprisoned. Venezuela angrily condemned what was perceived to be a gross violation of Venezuelan sovereignty, and a month-long spat ensued in which the US sided squarely with Colombia, antagonizing Venezuela further.

In an interview last Friday, US Sectretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Washington Post, “Nobody wants to be an enemy of Venezuela or of its leadership,...we can have good relations with Venezuela at any time.” Yet what appeared to signify a temporary respite in the three-month long war of words between high-level US and Venezuelan officials was in fact nothing of the kind. Bush’s comments to the leaders of Argentina, Mexico, and Canada were coupled with continued criticisms of Venezuelan arms purchases from Russia, Brazil, and Spain.

According to Madrid daily El Mundo, the officials in the US Embassy in Madrid expressed their concern to the Spanish government regarding Spain’s plans to sell eight naval ships and twelve aircraft to Venezuela, to be used in the defense of the Coast, and in the war on drugs.

Spanish government officials deny that the US has criticized the deal, and Chávez, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero denied any offensive capability of the arms, while Colombian President Alvaro Uribe affirmed that the purchase would aid Venezuela’s ability to the illegal flow of arms across their 1,400 mile border with Colombia.