February 17, 2006

Stop meddling, Venezuela tells US

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela on Friday demanded
the United States stop meddling after U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice said Washington wanted to curb President Hugo
Chavez by lobbying allies.

The latest exchange between the United States and top oil
supplier Venezuela came two weeks after left-winger Chavez
expelled a U.S. naval attache accused of spying and Washington
sent home a Venezuelan diplomat in an escalating dispute.

"With respect, but with firmness, we demand they stop the
meddling and the interfering in Venezuela's affairs," said
Deputy Foreign Minister Mari Pili Hernandez, who met on Friday
with visiting officials from the U.S. State Department.

"We want respect for our country, we want respect for our
sovereignty," she told reporters.

Rice said on Thursday Washington would try to curb Chavez's
anti-American influence by reaching out to allies to expose any
anti-democratic policies in what she termed an "inoculation"
strategy to counter Chavez, who is allied to Cuba.

She said she had contacted governments to publicly
criticize a treason trial against leaders of a movement,
Sumate, which had received U.S. funding and helped organize a
2004 referendum that failed to oust Chavez.

Critics say the trial is political persecution by an
increasingly authoritarian government, a charge Chavez
dismisses as propaganda. Prosecutors say the group illegally
received funding from a foreign government.

Fortified by soaring oil revenues, Chavez has reached out
to his South American neighbors and captured anti-U.S.
sentiment with his message of socialist revolution as an
alternative to U.S.-backed free-market policies.

Since Chavez's 1998 election, relations between Washington
and Caracas have steadily deteriorated even though Venezuela
still supplies 15 percent of U.S. energy imports.

Chavez brands U.S. President George W. Bush "Mr. Danger"
and often blasts U.S. "imperialist" policies. U.S. officials
say the soldier-turned-president is eroding democracy at home
and working to destabilize the region.