WASHINGTON – Despite tense relations with Venezuela, President Bush (search) says it might be OK for the South American nation to have a nuclear reactor for peaceful energy uses.
Bush acknowledged he had not heard about Venezuela's request for a reactor when asked about it Tuesday in an interview with Latin American reporters in advance of his five-day trip to the region. But he didn't reject the idea, even though he has had numerous disputes with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (search).
As Chavez, Bush and leaders from 32 other nations in the Western Hemisphere prepare to gather Friday at the Summit of the Americas (search) in Argentina, the Venezuelan leader is trying to boost his profile by putting his disputes with the United States at center stage.
On Tuesday, Chavez said he would bring to the summit a message that the United States' "capitalist, imperialist model" was responsible for exploiting developing economies and ruining the global environment. He also warned he might share Venezuela's U.S.-made F-16 fighters with Cuba and China, accusing the United States of making it difficult for his country to obtain spare parts for the planes, which Venezuela originally purchased in 1983.
Chavez has said his government was preparing for a possible U.S. invasion aimed at taking over Venezuela's oil fields, an allegation that U.S. officials have denied. He also has denounced the U.S.-led war in Iraq and said world leaders should consider moving the United Nations headquarters out of the United States.
Chavez recently said he is interested in working with Iran to explore peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Chavez has insisted Iran has the right to develop nuclear energy despite opposition from the U.S. government, which fears Tehran may be developing a nuclear weapons program.
Venezuela has asked for technical help from Argentina to develop nuclear energy. Bush said he would be curious to know what Argentine President Nestor Kirchner (search) has to say about the idea.
Kirchner and Chavez share left-leaning politics and have built close ties. Bush said he hopes Kirchner will agree with his position that international oversight of any nuclear development is important and noted that Venezuela already is an energy rich nation as one of the world's top oil producers.
"I guess if I were a taxpayer in Venezuela, I would wonder about the energy supply that Venezuela has," Bush said. "But maybe it makes sense. I haven't really studied the proposal."
Fred Jones, a spokesman for the National Security Council at the White House, later said that any nuclear cooperation with Venezuela would have to be in accordance with international obligations and safeguards set by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency. "We have worked closely with Argentina to fight nonproliferation and look forward to continuing to do so in the future," Jones said.
Bush's trip to Argentina, Brazil and Panama follows what has been one of the worst week's of his presidency. One of his top advisers was indicted, he had to replace his widely criticized Supreme Court nominee, and U.S. military deaths in Iraq passed the 2,000 mark.
Bush even made light of the issue of reporter-source relationships that has been at the center of the investigation into who in his administration was responsible for leaking the name of a covert CIA operative to the media. The investigation led to Friday's perjury and obstruction of charges against I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (search), Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.
When an Argentine reporter said sources told him that Kirchner planned to ask Bush for help reaching a new financial agreement on its debts with the International Monetary Fund, Bush expressed mock surprise that government officials can act as secret-leaking sources.
"I'm not going to ask you who they are, of course," Bush said, drawing laughter from the U.S. contingent in the room. "Inside joke here, for my team."
He went on to say that he would listen to any request that Kirchner makes in their private meeting, but the populist leader elected after Argentina's 2002 economic collapse appears "plenty capable of dealing with the IMF directly" without the United States as a "middleman."
The agenda at the Summit of the Americas centers on poverty reduction, with Bush promoting increased trade and the creation of other economic opportunities as the best solutions.
But Bush acknowledged that he has been unable to accomplish what was once one of his highest trade priorities — the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas that remove tariffs and or barriers on all goods among every country in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba.
The talks have been at an impasse for months, with co-chairs Brazil and the United States remaining far apart on a number of issues, including U.S. protections for American farmers and Brazil's laws covering the protection of intellectual property rights.