U.S. Says Venezuela is 'Packing' its Court

The State Department accused Venezuela (search) on Wednesday of "packing" its Supreme Court to ensure a pro-government majority and said the move calls into question the country's commitment to judicial independence.

The Venezuelan Congress, dominated by supporters of President Hugo Chavez (search), appointed new justices on Monday in carrying out a court expansion from 20 to 32 that won legislative approval last spring.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States shares the concerns expressed by human rights groups and Venezuela's opposition.

"We think that separation of powers is an intrinsic part of democracy that is respected throughout Latin America and throughout the international community," he said.

Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez said in an interview the expanded court will be "more functional" than it was before. "It was necessary for the judicial process," he said. Alvarez denied allegations that proper procedures were not followed in the appointments of the new justices.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, joined the State Department in criticizing the expansion.

"Five years ago, President Chavez's supporters helped to enshrine the principle of judicial independence in a new democratic constitution," Vivanco said.

"Now, by packing the country's highest court, they are betraying that principle and degrading Venezuelan democracy."

Less than a week ago, the State Department accused Venezuela of trying to limit freedom of expression through a new media law that restricts violent and sexual content over the airwaves.

Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the United States is "deeply troubled" by "threats to freedom of expression" posed by the law.

Chavez has said the new law will ensure more responsible programming for children and adolescents.

Boucher, in his comments Wednesday, also found fault with a new economic integration agreement that Venezuela has signed with Cuba.

"We are troubled that a country with a democratic tradition like Venezuela would want to strengthen its ties to the only undemocratic regime and closed economy in the hemisphere," he said.

He added that any attempt to emulate a Cuban model at a time of increasing global expansion and regional integration "would be a step backward for the people of Venezuela."

Alvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador, said Cuban cooperation with Venezuela has been a "great experience for Venezuela." He said millions of his countrymen have benefited from the presence of thousands of Cuban health and education experts and sports trainers who serve in Venezuela.

The close personal ties between Chavez and Cuban President Fidel Castro were underscored this week during a visit by Chavez to the island.

Chavez traveled to Cuba on the 10th anniversary of his first visit. During a ceremony at a Havana theater, Castro presented him with a medal as the audience chanted, "Chavez, Fidel, united to conquer."