Sit down and negotiate
...Carter urges Venezuela government, opposition By Magdalena Morales
Guyana Chronicle
July 9, 2002

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CARACAS, Venezuela, (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter urged Venezuela's fractious opposition yesterday to sit down and negotiate with President Hugo Chavez to calm rumbling political tensions ahead of a planned anti-government march this week.

Opposition leaders who met the American trouble-shooter at a Caracas hotel told reporters he had offered to chair a meeting today between them and left-wing former paratrooper Chavez, who survived a chaotic but short-lived coup in April.

Since leaving office, Carter has made a career of seeking to resolve world conflicts and promote democracy as the head of his Atlanta-based Carter Center.

He arrived in politically divided Venezuela on Saturday on a four-day mission aimed at brokering a dialogue between the president and his political opponents, who include labour and business chiefs, media owners and dissident military officers.

The meeting proposed by Carter would attempt to agree on concrete steps to restore political stability and economic confidence in the world's fifth-largest oil exporter.

But opposition leaders were cautious about accepting Carter's proposal. They have accused Chavez of persistently turning a deaf ear to their calls for him to correct the course of his self-proclaimed ``revolution'' in oil-rich Venezuela.

Since Chavez's brief ouster by disgruntled officers in April, the country has been gripped by coup jitters. Dialogue overtures by the government to the opposition have foundered amid bitter squabbling and mutual recriminations.

Both sides fear that a big protest march to the presidential palace in Caracas planned by the opposition for Thursday could end in the same kind of bloody street violence that killed more than 60 people during the April 11-14 coup.

Opposition parties and groups have asked Carter and his team to extend their July 6-10 visit to observe the July 11 protest march and guarantee the demonstrators' safety. But the former U.S. president has so far not replied to this request.

Opposition leaders said the face-to-face dialogue with Chavez proposed for today would work only if it could agree on a single, concrete proposal acceptable to all sides.

` `This kind of single proposal can open doors...if you simply make a catalogue of the country's problems, then there is going to be a lot of talk and no solutions to anything,'' said Julio Borges, of the small opposition Justice First party.

Borges suggested the government-opposition dialogue should decide on whether Venezuela should ask the Organisation of American States to supervise a national dialogue.

``We think that former President Carter would make an excellent liaison with the OAS and the United Nations so that these international organisations can intervene in Venezuela's conflict,'' Rafael Marin, secretary-general of the Democratic Action opposition party, told reporters.

Chavez's government, which invited Carter to visit, has said it welcomes support from foreign institutions and personalities for a peace dialogue in Venezuela. But it is reluctant to accept direct, active foreign mediation.

Complicating the chances of success for a dialogue brokered by Carter, opposition leaders demanded the government disarm its supporters and replace public figures like the Attorney-General and Ombudsman, who they say are pro-Chavez.

The opposition also wants an independent Truth Commission to be set up immediately to probe the April coup killings.

Foes of Chavez, who won a 1998 election six years after failing to seize power in a botched coup, blame him and his supporters for the deaths of at least 17 people who were shot by gunmen during a huge anti-government march on April 11.

Chavez blames the opposition for the killings, which triggered the coup by senior officers who briefly deposed him. He was restored to power 48 hours later by loyal troops and supporters.

The president's foes accuse him of steering his oil-rich country toward totalitarian rule and destroying jobs and investment with his left-leaning policies.

Chavez stoutly defends his ``revolution,'' which includes land and credit grants for poor families. He says it is aimed at improving social justice in a nation that despite its oil riches still suffers from chronic poverty.