Rice Pushes Latin American 'Positive Agenda'

With U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) at his side, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim voiced support Tuesday for a democratic outcome in Venezuela (search). But in remarks that appeared aimed at Washington, he implicitly cautioned against any outside intervention to achieve that goal.

"We want to see Venezuela move toward a harmonious democratic solution," Amorim said at a news conference, a sentiment echoed moments later by Rice, who is on the first stop of a four-nation hemispheric tour.

Twice in his remarks, Amorim said any solution must respect Venezuelan sovereignty.

"Obviously, we know that, like any other society, there are problems and that those problems have to be worked out by the Venezuelan people," he said, speaking through a translator. He added that Brazil (search) "will do what we can do to help in a positive way, always respecting" the country's sovereignty.

Amorim was responding to a question about whether Brazil shares the U.S. concern about the centralization of power in Venezuela, perhaps in violation of the Organization of American States' charter, which says all signatories must follow democratic procedures.

After Rice's visit to the Foreign Ministry, she met with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for 30 minutes. A presidential spokesman said they discussed boosting commercial ties and strengthening democracy in the hemisphere.

The Venezuela issue has become one of the hottest political topics in the hemisphere as the United States attempts to find a strategy for coping with what it perceives to be the country's drift toward authoritarian rule under populist President Hugo Chavez.

The administration appears to be attempting to rally hemispheric opinion around the idea that Venezuela should abide by the charter's terms.

Without direct reference to Venezuela, Rice said it was important that all signatories live up to charter.

At issue, she said, is the defense of freedom and democracy. "The issues with Venezuela are not issues between the United States and Venezuela, or Venezuela and Brazil," Rice said.

For his part, the democratically elected Chavez has maintained that the United States has intervened repeatedly in Venezuela, citing a failed military coup attempt in 2002, an oil industry strike in the winter of 2002-03 and a recall referendum last August.

The United States has strongly denied any attempt at meddling in Venezuela's internal affairs. Unstated in Rice's remarks was the U.S. concern over the close ties that Chavez maintains with Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Rice insisted that the United States is pursuing a "positive agenda" in its hemispheric policy, with emphasis not only on democratic governance but on the need for free trade, including a hemisphere-wide agreement extending to all 34 countries.

But Chavez is perhaps the hemisphere's most stalwart opponent of the proposal, reacting gleefully when the deadline for completion of the negotiation in January passed without agreement.

Brazil, with its left-of-center government, seems an unlikely candidate to stand up to Chavez on the democracy issue.

In early 2003, when the oil strike in Venezuela halted production of the country's chief export, Brazil provided an emergency shipment.