As Venezuela fights itself, 'friends' come to the rescue

Six nations meet Friday in Washington aiming to end the seven-week strike.

A fresh effort to resolve Venezuela's political crisis gets its baptism Friday with a meeting in Washington of a six-nation task force. The "group of friends" was formed to step up the diplomatic pressure on the Venezuelan government and its opposition.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton has welcomed the group, joking that "nobody minds having an extra friend." But behind the banter lurks an uncomfortable truth: Some friends are friendlier than others.

The group's task will be to support the Organization of American States (OAS) secretary-general Cesar Gaviria, who has spent two months in Venezuela's capital attempting to produce a peaceful, electoral solution to the nation's year-old conflict. It was formed last week, at the urging of the United States, in the hope of ending a seven-week strike that has crippled the country's vital oil industry. But it includes fewer allies of leftist President Hugo Chávez than he would like.

"Enemies of the revolutionary process predominate" among the six members, according to Mr. Chávez's key ally Fidel Castro. Cuba, the only country in the hemisphere that is barred from the OAS, was among the candidates that Chávez proposed for the group, but was rejected.

The initiative acquired a more conservative aspect after the US decided to join. By agreement with the newly inaugurated leftist President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, regional heavyweights Mexico and Chile were added to the gathering, along with former colonial powers Spain and Portugal.

A bid by Chávez to include more - and friendlier - nations met with a firm rebuff from Mr. da Silva last weekend, despite his close ties to the Venezuelan leader.

The group was announced in Quito at the inauguration Jan. 17 of another potential Chávez ally, President Lucio Gutierrez of Ecuador. But Chávez made no secret of his irritation, saying he had not been consulted. "In Quito, they were in too much of a hurry," he said in a nationwide address Wednesday night.

The Chávez government, which regards Mr. Gaviria and his mission with suspicion, has lately made a renewed effort to cast doubt on the validity of the talks he has been chairing. It has consistently rejected demands for an early referendum on Chávez's rule, which the opposition regards as incompetent and autocratic. On Wednesday, Venezuela's Supreme Court indefinitely postponed a Feb. 2 referendum on Chávez's presidency.

Insisting Gaviria is in Venezuela at the invitation of his government, rather than under an OAS mandate, Chávez has hinted the government might abandon the talks.

Chávez, a former army lieutenant-colonel who himself attempted a coup in 1992, insists that the international community recognize that he heads a legitimate elected government opposed by a "terrorist" opposition. He says the only electoral option is a recall referendum, available under the Constitution after the halfway point of his term.

There is some dispute, however, as to when that point falls, since the Supreme Court granted him an extra five months to his six-year term. "Chávez thought that with the group of friends, he'd be able to undermine Gaviria," said former foreign minister Simon Alberto Consalvi. "But his plan backfired."

Mr. Consalvi, who helped set up a similar, and successful, mechanism - known as the Contadora Group - during the Central American wars of the 1980s, is convinced that the group strengthens Gaviria's hand. "I believe [Chávez] will have to back down, finally," he says.

No one doubts that the "friends" need to move fast. The conflict has already cost some 50 lives, and will surely bring more violence if a negotiated settlement cannot be reached.

A visit this week by former US President Jimmy Carter, who has also been involved in facilitation efforts, failed to produce a shift in President Chávez's stance.

"Within the Constitution, everything," Chávez remarked on Wednesday. "Outside the Constitution, nothing."

But the hope is that, with some of the most powerful governments in the hemisphere involved, and backing from elsewhere, including the European Union, the group will have the leverage to succeed where Gaviria and Carter have so far failed.

"I think there's enough firepower there to push this hard enough" to achieve a settlement, said Peter Hakim of the Washington-based Interamerican Dialogue. "Though I'm by no means convinced that the Brazilians and the US will easily reach agreement on how to proceed."

Observers say the group may delegate two or three foreign ministers to pay a visit to Caracas and speak with both sides before making recommendations.

Clashes earlier this week between government and opposition demonstrators near the capital left one dead and over a dozen injured from gunfire. And a call by the National Guard (GN) leadership for Chávez to sack a particularly loyal GN general for conduct regarded as unbecoming - but endorsed by the president - was another reminder that the ostensibly loyal armed forces remain divided.

"I think we're headed inevitably for violence," said former minister Consalvi. "But when it does break out for real, the group of friends will step in." Venezuelans can only hope that - if that happens - the nations move swiftly and effectively.

"We've done our best to avoid violence," said Caracas Mayor Freddy Bernal, a Chávez ally regarded by the opposition as a hard-liner.

"So far, the train wreck hasn't happened. If it does, one side or the other may win - but Venezuela will be the loser."

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