The Rev. Jesse Jackson met with President Hugo Chavez in hopes of reducing tensions between the United States and Venezuela after a religious broadcaster called for the leftist president’s assassination.
The U.S. civil rights leader on Monday urged both sides to tone down their “hostile rhetoric,” and said President Bush should strongly condemn recent remarks by conservative religious broadcaster Pat Robertson calling for Chavez’s assassination.
Jackson said good relations are in both countries’ interests since Venezuela is a top supplier of U.S. oil.
Chavez offers cheap oil to poor
“I hope that we’ve done something to facilitate a detente on threatening rhetoric,” Jackson said. “We’re not going to have an oil war.”
Chavez offered the United States cheap heating oil for poor communities and said he was willing to cooperate with the United States in anti-drug efforts, a program he recently suspended saying U.S. drug agents were involved in spying.
“In spite of the differences and the tense relations that exist, we’re always willing to continue working together with Mr. Bush’s government in the fight against drugs,” Chavez said, adding that it “cannot be a mask to carry out spying or violate a country’s sovereignty.”
Chavez, a close ally of Cuba’s Fidel Castro who has clashed repeatedly with Washington, said his government would tap into its Citgo Petroleum Corp. refineries in the United States to sell heating oil directly to poor communities, avoiding middle men to bring down costs.
Details of the plan have yet to be worked out, but Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said officials hope to begin supplying heating oil this winter.
Calls for Robertson's extradition
Chavez also said Venezuela would “exercise its rights” under the law in response to Robertson’s remarks calling for his assassination. He has said his government could ask the United States to extradite Robertson.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Monday that Venezuela does not appear to have a sound legal basis for seeking Robertson’s extradition.
Robertson called for Chavez’s assassination on his TV show “The 700 Club” a week ago, saying the United States should “take him out” because the Chavez poses a danger. Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition of America and a supporter of Bush’s re-election bid, later apologized.
“We must make it clear that talk of isolating Venezuela, talk of assassinating its leader, this is unacceptable, and it must be denounced roundly by our president,” Jackson told The Associated Press shortly before the meeting with Chavez.
Chavez has regularly accused the U.S. government of plotting to overthrow him and has said it backed the 2002 coup. U.S. officials have strongly denied it, even as they have expressed concern about Chavez’s ties with Castro and what opponents call his authoritarian tendencies.
“We never lose hope that we’ll regain a good tone with Mr. Bush’s government,” said Chavez, who offered Venezuelan aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Despite the tensions, the United States remains the top buyer of Venezuelan oil.
Tension, but 'friendship' intact
Jackson said Robertson’s “friendship” with Bush’s administration is apparent, and that his comments came in response to repeated U.S. suggestions that Chavez poses a threat to the region.
McCormack said there are “certainly difficulties” but that the two countries continue diplomatic talks.
Jackson, who said it was his first visit to Venezuela, said he expressed concern to Chavez about a move to temporarily suspend visas for foreign missionaries in Venezuela.
The Interior Ministry said Monday that one-year visas for missionaries seeking to enter the country had been suspended for at least 15 days. It said the measure was aimed at “achieving improved control” and was not specifically aimed at Americans.
Chavez did not comment on the measure but said some of his enemies have directed calls for his assassination at “religious fanatics.”
During his visit, Jackson said he also held talks with religious and opposition leaders. He praised Chavez’s plan to provide oil directly to poor U.S. communities.