The Miami Herald
Sun, Feb. 29, 2004
Kirchner meets with Chávez's opponents

A G-15 summit ends Saturday with Argentine President Néstor Kirchner meeting with President Hugo Chávez's opposition.


CARACAS - Argentine President Néstor Kirchner skipped the morning session of the G-15 summit in Caracas on Saturday, meeting instead with principal leaders of Venezuela's opposition.

The encounter with President Hugo Chávez's opponents was the weekend's second blow for the embattled Venezuelan leader, who opened the summit Friday to mass protests that left two people dead and 26 injured. Chávez closed the two-day conference of 19 countries with just two heads of state at his side -- including the controversial leader of Zimbabwe.

''One of the only presidents who stayed in Venezuela for a few extra hours with his entire delegation spent it meeting with leaders of the opposition in search of a democratic solution here,'' said opposition congressman Julio Borges, who attended the meeting with Kirchner.

''It was a great gesture by Argentina and a lesson to the Venezuelan government that a foreign government is more tolerant than they are,'' Borges added.


Kirchner was one six presidents attending the 12th meeting of the Group of 15, an organization actually made up of 19 developing nations. The presidents of Brazil and Colombia left Friday.

Friday's protests overshadowed the event, as the National Guard beat back protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets. The march turned into a rock-throwing melee that Venezuela's vice president called ``planned chaos by subversives.''

Argentina's foreign minister, Rafael Bielsa, said Kirchner's meeting with Borges and Miranda State Gov. Enrique Mendoza -- considered possible contenders to replace Chávez -- was planned in advance. In attendance were the Argentine ambassador in Caracas, Argentine intellectuals, the governor of Buenos Aires province and president of the Argentine Senate, Borges said.

''Venezuela is not lacking in brother foreign nations trying to help find an end to this in the best way possible,'' Bielsa told reporters. ``And in the best way possible, I mean that the worst way would be violence, bloodshed and repression.''


The Venezuelan opposition has been trying to oust Chávez for two years. A brief coup in 2002 allowed Chávez to rid the military of dissident senior officers who spoke out against him, and a two-month general strike last year gave him the chance to purge the state oil company of 18,000 opponents.

Now the opposition seeks a recall referendum to drive him out. But the five-member National Elections Council, dominated by three government supporters, has objected to 700,000 signatures, dimming the prospects of a recall.