Arshad Mohammed and Brian Harris
June 4 2007
PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - The United States called Venezuela "anti-democratic" on Monday for closing an opposition TV station and Venezuela compared the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay to Nazi Germany in a public spat over human rights.
The testy exchanges erupted at a regional meeting that was supposed to be about energy but was marked by dueling speeches by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro.
Rice fired the first shot by telling reporters as she flew to Panama, "I do not see how closing down an opposition (TV station), literally because they have taken you on and taken on your policies, can be seen as anything but anti-democratic."
She later told officials at the meeting of the Organization of American States, or OAS, "The unfettered public discussion of ideas is the greatest guarantee for the rule of law and the surest protection against the whims of rulers."
Rice singled out Venezuela by name and urged the head of the OAS to visit the country to investigate the matter.
Maduro compared the U.S. imprisonment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay to "the era of Hitler" and accused Washington of meddling in his country's affairs.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took RCTV off the air on May 27, silencing what had been a major opponent to reforms that gave the leftist leader greater control over the judiciary, the military and the oil sector of the OPEC member.
Two days later, he called news channel Globovision -- the last main opposition media in Venezuela, although it does not have nationwide coverage -- an enemy of the state and said he would do what was necessary to stop it from inciting violence.
Maduro responded to Rice by accusing the United States of violating human rights at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, where it holds 380 prisoners, and suggesting that an OAS commission investigate the prison.
He also accused the United States of trying to destabilize Chavez, saying: "The speech by the representative of the United States of America constitutes an unacceptable interventionism ... and we reject it."
Rice then demanded the floor to respond.
"It would be difficult for any commission to debate more fully, to investigate more fully, to criticize more fully the policies of the United States government than is done every night on CNN, on ABC, on CBS, on NBC," she said.
"That is the point of press freedom -- 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 without the interference of their government," she said.
"The citizens of the United States have that assurance. I sincerely hope that the citizens of Venezuela will have that assurance as well," she added, standing up from the table, turning on her heel and walking away.
In response, Maduro said, "It is a monstrous thing, comparable only to the era of Hitler, that in this day and age there are clandestine prisons with faceless prisoners and nameless prisoners."
He also called for the United States to allow the Venezuelan state-run broadcaster that has replaced RCTV into Guantanamo Bay to interview its inmates.
While RCTV's closure has sparked some criticism in Latin America, officials at the OAS meeting have largely avoided comment on the matter.
Panama's national journalism council, which includes its major media outlets, ran full-page advertisements in local newspapers saying "Without speech, no freedom, neither in Venezuela nor in the rest of the world."