Venezuela's Chavez tells U.S. to stop meddling in Venezuela's affairs
By CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER
CARACAS (AP) - Following a week of tense exchanges with Washington, President Hugo Chavez on Saturday said American officials should not "stick their noses" in Venezuela's affairs.
U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said Friday that Chavez should show "that he believes in democratic processes" by allowing the recall referendum on his administration to take place.
The comments followed a week of back-and-forth comments that began when U.S. officials accused Venezuela and Cuba of co-operating to undermine democratic governments in the region.
On Saturday, Chavez said the United States was wrong to comment on Venezuela's internal affairs.
"It is not up to them to stick their noses here in Venezuela," Chavez said. "What occurs in Venezuela only concerns Venezuelans."
"Venezuela is a free, sovereign and independent country," added Chavez, one of Latin America's most outspoken critics of the Bush administration's foreign policy.
Caracas' ties with Washington have been strained over Chavez's friendly relations with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, whose ouster by political and military means Washington has supported for decades, and his opposition to a U.S.-backed hemispheric free trade zone.
Despite is claim to back democracy in Venezuela, Washington was also slow to condemn a 2002 coup that briefly ousted Chavez.
Venezuela's National Elections Council must verify 3.4 million signatures that Chavez opponents submitted on petitions seeking the recall election.
Chavez, whose six-year term ends in 2007, insists opponents resorted to fraud to collect the signatures and has said the elections council must persuade him "signature by signature" that there is a legal basis for the vote.
Ezequiel Zamora, vice-president of the elections council, said the vote - if approved - would be held before August as opposition groups have planned.
Opposition leaders argue Chavez, a former paratrooper elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, would be able to continue governing from behind the scenes if one of his confidants finishes his term.
A fierce critic of what he calls U.S. hegemony in world affairs, Chavez praised Latin American leaders like Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, Brazil's Luiz Ignacio Lula Da Silva and his close friend Castro for standing up to Washington.