The New Herald
June 5, 2007
In a confrontation with her Venezuelan counterpart, Secretary of State
Rice called for an OAS probe into Venezuela's takeover of a TV station.
PANAMA CITY, Panama -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Monday ripped into Venezuela's decision to shut down an opposition TV station and urged the Organization of American States to investigate.
She also said Cuba is in ''a process of change'' and that the 34-nation OAS must be ``ready to help the Cuban people realize their aspirations and freedoms.''
Rice dedicated about half her speech at the OAS' 37th General Assembly to energy issues, the main item on the agenda, but then engaged in a rare OAS confrontation with her Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolás Maduro.
''Freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of conscience are not a thorn in the side of government,'' she told the meeting of foreign ministers, referring to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's decision not to renew the broadcast license of the RCTV station. ``They are the beginning of justice in every society.
''Disagreeing with your government is not unpatriotic and most certainly should not be a crime in any country, especially in a democracy,'' she said.
Citing Article 18 of the OAS' 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter, Rice added that Secretary General José Miguel Insulza should ''go to Venezuela to consult in good faith with all interested parties and to present a full report'' to the hemispheric body.
The remarks were the most forceful among the speeches made by nations at the meeting. The envoys of Uruguay, Peru, Canada and El Salvador also defended the right to free speech but did not name either Venezuela or RCTV. Most speeches stayed on the main theme of energy cooperation.
Outside the meeting, a group of activists and local journalists unfurled a long banner with ''freedom of expression'' written in about a dozen languages. Panamanian newspapers ran ads in solidarity with RCTV saying ''without expression, there is no freedom,'' and local TV and radio stations held a brief moment of silence.
Under Article 18, the OAS can intervene only if the host government agrees. This seems unlikely in the Venezuela case given Maduro's angry response to Rice.
He defended the RCTV takeover as a ''democratic, legal, just and constitutional'' decision and added that the OAS should instead dispatch a commission to investigate whether the rights of prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba are being respected.
He called the proposed U.S.-Mexico border fence to keep out illegal migrants ``the wall of indignity.''
Rice asked to speak again and shot back at Maduro.
On Guantánamo and U.S. immigration policies, she said, ``I am quite certain that it would be difficult for any [OAS] commission to debate more fully, to investigate more fully, to criticize the policies of the United States government than is done every night on CNN, on ABC, on CBS, on NBC and on any number of smaller channels in the United States.
''That is the point of press freedom,'' she added, ``that in a democracy, the citizens of a country should have the assurance that the policies of their government will be held up for criticism by a free and independent press . . . The citizens of the United States have that assurance. I sincerely hope the citizens of Venezuela will have that assurance as well.''
As Rice was leaving the hall, Maduro said he regretted she would not hear his rebuttal. He said Guantánamo was ''something monstrous, only comparable to the Hitler era,'' and called on Washington to allow a Venezuelan government TV station's cameras into Guantánamo.
On Cuba, Rice said Cuba's political and economic future will be charted by the Cubans ``in Cuba.''