May 22, 2006

Bush Says Democracy Eroding in Venezuela, Bolivia

CHICAGO (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Monday he was concerned about the erosion of democracy in Venezuela and Bolivia.

Bush was responding to a question at a speech to the National Restaurant Association about what his strategy was to oil-producing countries not friendly to the United States such as Venezuela and Bolivia.

"Let me just put it bluntly, I'm concerned about the erosion of democracy in the countries you mentioned," Bush said.

U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been fraught with tension. Most recently, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez accused the United States of "imperial abuse" after Washington banned U.S. arms sales to his country.

Venezuela asserts it fights terrorism, but Washington has accused it of being uncooperative in the U.S. war against terrorism.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, feeling domestic pressure, nationalized the energy industry on May 1 to cement his power and build support ahead of elections later this year for a special assembly to rewrite the constitution.

Morales and Chavez are close allies and, with Cuban President Fidel Castro, have formed a leftist alliance that aims to stifle what they say is U.S. political and economic hegemony in Latin America.

Bush said he will continue to work with countries in the hemisphere on free trade to remind "that relations with the United States would be beneficial to their people."