Washington File

17 April 2003
Secretary Powell Calls for Venezuela's Chavez to Allow Referendum in 2003
(In interview, reiterates U.S. engagement with Western Hemisphere)
By Eric Green
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has called on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to allow for a referendum in 2003 that would permit the people of Venezuela to decide "what kind of democracy they want to see in their country."

Interviewed April 16 by Associated Press Television News, where he also discussed Iraq and other trouble spots around the world, Powell said that representatives of Chavez's government and of the political opposition crafted the referendum as a "constitutional solution to the current crisis" in Venezuela. By allowing for such a referendum, Chavez would be showing "a commitment to democracy of the kind that we believe is the correct form of democracy for our hemisphere," said Powell.

The secretary said that allowing for and abiding by the results of the referendum would provide a "test" for Chavez to show his commitment "to the kinds of democratic institutions that we believe are vital within a democracy, as we know democracy to exist in this hemisphere."

The United States has welcomed a recent agreement brokered by the Organization of American States (OAS) that provides a peaceful electoral solution to Venezuela's political crisis. The State Department said April 11 that the agreement paves the way for a constitutionally-provided recall referendum concerning Chavez's
continued tenure as Venezuela's president.

Responding to a question about whether the United States is so consumed with security matters that it has become disengaged from the hemisphere, Powell listed a number of ongoing initiatives being pursued by the Bush Administration with the region. The secretary described what he called a "rich agenda" with the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean "that includes security as an item, but also economic and social development, and counter-terrorism and counter-drug activity."

The United States, "of course, has security concerns," Powell said, adding: "Every nation in the world, and especially in this hemisphere," after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, "should have security concerns about defending yourselves against terrorists who might come across your border."

But at the same time, Powell said that "we're working hard to make sure the United States remains an open society." In that regard, Powell said the Bush Administration is committed to creating the Free Trade Area of the Americas providing for open markets from Canada to Chile, and to establishing bilateral trade agreements with nations throughout the hemisphere. Powell added that President Bush just a few days ago met in Washington with the leaders of five Central American nations to talk about progress toward a new Central American Free Trade Agreement.

Powell also said that another initiative of the president's, the Millennium Challenge Account, will be used to aid developing countries that are committed to democracy and are in "need."

Much of the money from the Challenge Account will be used to aid countries in the Caribbean, Powell indicated.

In addition, the secretary said he had spent a good portion of his time testifying before the U.S. Congress on providing the countries of the Andean region with alternative forms of economic development to discourage the production of illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Asked about the contentious problem of Cuba, Powell said he had called foreign ministers around the world to encourage them to vote for a resolution during the current meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that would "point out Cuba's terrible human rights record."

Powell said Costa Rica had offered an amendment that toughens an original resolution put forth by Latin American nations that takes into account some of Cuba's recent actions against dissidents. The dissidents, Powell said, are people "who are just speaking out and trying to exercise their democratic rights -- human rights -- of free speech, and [because of that] they are being thrown in jail for 10, 15, 20 years."

Powell said "it is in the interest of human rights for the Cuban people" for delegates to the U.N. human rights commission to vote for the Costa Rican amendment. Powell said he hoped the vote would show "that this august body in Geneva finds the Cuban human rights situation to be deplorable and worthy of censure."

The commission urged Cuba in an April 17 vote to accept a visit by a U.N. envoy to probe alleged human rights abuses in the country. But the commission, composed of 53 nations, rejected the Costa Rican resolution demanding freedom for at least 75 Cuban dissidents who had been given lengthy jail sentences.

(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: