Jimmy Carter Launches Peace Mission in Venezuela

Former President Carter headed to Venezuela Sunday for talks to avoid violence between President Hugo Chavez's supporters and opponents who remain skeptical about Carter's chances of success.

"It is my hope that the Venezuelan government and opposition groups will pursue constructive talks to settle immediate pressing differences," Carter said in a statement released by the Carter Center on Saturday.

"I will, therefore, also discuss their possible desire for the international community to participate in this effort."

Chavez invited Carter, hoping the former U.S. leader could convince business, labor, news media and civic leaders to rejoin government-sponsored reconciliation talks that began after a brief April coup.

Some opposition leaders called it a ploy to buy time for Chavez, who has ignored appeals by the Organization of American States to help resolve Venezuela's crisis.

"The government is using President Carter as a subterfuge to avoid dealing with the OAS, which we feel is the correct mediator because its resolutions are binding for the Venezuelan state," said lawmaker Rafael Marin of the opposition Democratic Action party.

Many have quit the government talks, convinced that Chavez is not sincere about changing the leftist direction of his revolution, cannot manage Venezuela's faltering economy and will not prosecute the killers of at least 20 people at a massive opposition march in April.

Looming over Carter's four-day mission are plans by opposition parties and civic groups Thursday to march again on a presidential palace defended by "Chavistas," held responsible for much of the violence in April.

Dissident generals arrested Chavez after the April demonstration. Chavez backers took to the streets, and Chavez was reinstated by loyalist troops April 14.

Carter has said he knows Chavez well, having monitored elections in Venezuela on four occasions. He said he called Chavez in April to congratulate him on his reinstatement.

"And then I told him what he needed was to have reconciliation with the 35 percent of Venezuelans who despise him," Carter said last month.

Chavez moderated his populist rhetoric after the coup, though in recent days he has resumed his attacks on a capitalist system he says condemns the majority of Latin Americans to perpetual poverty.

Many Venezuelans say Chavez must go, either by force or by referendum before his term ends in 2007.

Carter visited Cuba in May and noted dissident efforts to call a referendum on whether Cuba should allow freedom of expression and other rights. Afterward, Cuba's National Assembly enshrined socialism in the constitution as "irrevocable." The Carter Center has declined comment.