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Presidents Thaw US-Venezuela Rift

by Matthew Walter

PORT of SPAIN - Venezeulan President Hugo Chavez has vowed to seek closer ties with the US and is considering taking steps to send an ambassador to Washington after the countries expelled each others' envoys last year.

Book beginnings: President Obama (left) shakes hands with President Chavez and points at his gift copy of Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano's book. Photo: AFP Mr Chavez said he spoke with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, marking a change from his approach to diplomacy with the administration of George Bush, whom Mr Chavez once likened to the devil.

"I feel great optimism, and the best goodwill to move forward," Mr Chavez said after a meeting between US President Barack Obama and presidents from the Union of South American Nations in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

"I have no doubt that there will be, going forward, greater closeness."

Acting State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Mr Chavez had approached Mrs Clinton at the meeting and they discussed returning ambassadors to their respective posts in Caracas and Washington.

"This is a positive development that will help advance US interests, and the State Department will now work to further this shared goal," Mr Wood said.

Venezuela, the fourth-biggest foreign supplier of crude oil to the US, has repeatedly accused Americans of aiding the political opposition to Mr Chavez, a former paratrooper.

In 2002, Mr Chavez charged the Central Intelligence Agency with masterminding a brief coup against him.

Mr Chavez, who last month called Mr Obama an "ignoramus" when it comes to Latin America, gave Mr Obama a copy of Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano's book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent.

When asked by reporters at the Fifth Summit of the Americas whether he planned to read the book, Mr Obama, who doesn't speak Spanish, joked: "I thought it was one of Chavez's. I was going to give him one of mine."

Mr Chavez regularly accused former president Bush of trying to destabilise his Government, and in a 2006 speech to the United Nations called him "the devil". In September, Mr Chavez expelled US ambassador Patrick Duddy to show solidarity with Bolivia, which had also kicked out its US envoy.

Mr Obama said he recognised that it would take time to improve relations with Latin America, which he said felt neglected by the Bush administration.

Other Latin American critics of the US were less enthusiastic about the nation's new President.

Bolivia's Evo Morales, a former coca grower who has clashed with the US since taking office in 2006, said "policies of conspiracy" had not changed under Mr Obama.

"If there is a real change, a change in economic policy, and if there are relations based on mutual respect, it will be better," Mr Morales said. "We can't go back to the past."

Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega two days ago greeted Mr Obama with a 50-minute speech that included harangues about "Yankee troops" and the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. Mr Ortega said Mr Obama wasn't responsible for President John Kennedy's misadventure.

"I'm grateful that President Ortega didn't blame me for things that happened when I was three months old," Mr Obama said.

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