April 4, 2006

US, Venezuela diplomats meet to try to ease tension

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Diplomats from Venezuela and the
United States held their highest-level meeting in years on
Tuesday to try to ease tensions between the energy-hungry
superpower and one of its major oil suppliers.

Venezuelan Deputy Foreign Minister Mari Pili Hernandez met
the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, less
than two months after the countries each expelled a diplomat in
a dispute over spying charges.

Diplomats on both sides have periodically made gestures of
reconciliation but ties have steadily deteriorated.

Typically, overtures have been eclipsed by President Hugo
Chavez's constant baiting of his American counterpart and
increasingly severe U.S. accusations the Venezuelan leader is
undemocratic and destabilizing Latin America.

Hernandez doubted the two governments would ever bridge
their differences on issues such as free trade, where Chavez
has galvanized anti-American sentiment in the region by
opposing U.S. plans for a hemisphere-wide accord. But the
meeting sought to foster cooperation on areas they agreed on,
including counternarcotics.

"There are areas where we have deep differences, which are
going to be extremely difficult to agree on, but there are
other areas where we could find mutual interests and make
progress," she said in a telephone interview after the meeting.

It was the first time such high-ranking diplomats had met
since President George W. Bush came to power in 2001, she said.

The U.S.-Venezuelan relationship has caused anxiety in oil
markets, adding to general supply concerns that have helped
drive world crude prices higher.

Despite threats to stop selling crude to the United States
and redirect shipments to China, Chavez, a leftist who is an
ally of Cuban President Fidel Castro, has been a reliable U.S.
supplier of oil since he first won office in 1998.