Chavez Says He's Willing to Debate Intellectual Critics on TV

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Friday he is willing to debate his prominent critics, including Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa and other visiting Latin American intellectuals.

Chavez invited the group to debate Saturday on live television at the presidential palace during his program "Hello President."

"Seriously, gentlemen of the right: 'Hello President,' which happens to be commemorating its 10th anniversary, opens its doors to debate," Chavez said during the second day of a marathon four-day edition of his program. "Come. You'll be respected."

The president first mentioned his invitation on Thursday.

Vargas Llosa and others including former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda and Mexican historian Enrique Krauze said they're willing to debate with Chavez. Vargas Llosa told reporters earlier Friday that he would only participate if he and others are allowed "to say what we think."

"If the president wants dialogue, welcome," said the acclaimed writer, who was attending a pro-democracy forum organized by Cedice, a conservative Caracas-based think tank that is critical of Chavez's government.

Krauze said he thinks a debate on Chavez's program "would be very healthy." Chavez often talks for between four and six hours on his weekly radio and television program, and those who participate are generally Chavez supporters.

Upon his arrival in Venezuela this week, Vargas Llosa was stopped by authorities for nearly two hours, and said he was questioned and told "that as a foreigner I don't have the right to make political statements."

Chavez dismissed that account, saying some of his critics have come to put on a show and others "to offend, to provoke."

The visiting Chavez critics have raised concerns over the president's recent calls for sanctions against the television station Globovision — the only stridently anti-government channel left on the open airwaves.

Vargas Llosa said Thursday he believes "the threat of a blackout in the area of liberties, freedom of expression and the press has increased significantly" in Venezuela.

Broadcast regulators are investigating Globovision for purportedly inciting "panic and anxiety" during a moderate earthquake this month, when the channel criticized the government for slow response.

Chavez also urged the attorney general, Supreme Court and telecommunications chief on Thursday to take action against "poisonous" private media that he accused of conspiring against his government.

"Carry out your duty — that's why you're there," he said. "Or else, give up your positions to people with courage." Chavez didn't specify what sort of action regulators should take, nor did he name any media outlet.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders both expressed concern over Chavez's statements.

"President Chavez is overstepping his authority and ratcheting up his efforts to stifle dissent," said Carlos Lauria, senior program coordinator for CPJ's Americas program.