Chavez tells U.S. official he hopes for better relations

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said Saturday he had personally expressed hope to a high-ranking U.S. official for better relations between their two countries, just before meeting with Iran’s hard-line, anti-American president.

Chavez, a frequent critic of the Bush administration, said he spoke with Thomas Shannon, head of the U.S. State Department’s Western Hemisphere affairs bureau, on the sidelines of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s inauguration earlier this week.

“We shook hands and I told him: ‘I hope that everything improves,”‘ Chavez said Saturday in his state of the nation address to government officials and legislators.

“I’m not anyone’s enemy,” he added. Chavez met later Saturday with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was beginning a regional tour of leftist governments that seek to reduce Washington’s role in Latin America. The leaders have become increasingly united by their antagonism to Washington, and Chavez often cites the alliance as an example of the “multi-polar” world he seeks to counter U.S. dominance.

Venezuela and Iran, which already plan to jointly produce everything from bricks to bicycles, signed a series of accords Saturday to explore further opportunities for cooperation in areas like tourism, education and mining.

Chavez called for the U.S. government to accept “the new realities of Latin America,” as he brushed aside restrictions that limit presidents to two consecutive terms. He vowed to stay in office beyond 2013, when his term expires, saying he would revise the constitution to get rid of presidential term limits.

He also said he would immediately submit a request to congress for a new law to allow him to enact legislation by decree.

U.S. officials have accused Chavez of authoritarian tendencies, and National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said this past week in an annual review of global threats that Venezuela’s democracy was at risk under Chavez.

Chavez prompted a crash in Venezuelan share prices this past week when he announced he would seek special powers from the legislature to push through “revolutionary” reforms, including a string of nationalizations and unspecified changes to business laws and the commerce code.

Critics fear the announcement signaled a radical twist of Chavez’s socialist movement toward the communist system of Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

“The Cubanization of the country, my friend, has turned on its engines,” Miguel Sanmartin, a columnist for the El Universal newspaper, wrote in article published Saturday.

He said Chavez was moving toward a “fascist dictatorship” with his nationalization drive and plans to prevent an opposition-aligned TV station from broadcasting on open airwaves.

Chavez rejected those concerns Saturday and said that after his sweeping re-election in December there was “no turning back” for his leftist movement.

“We’ve received, without a doubt, the people’s mandate to step on the accelerator to advance without rest on this path toward a socialist Venezuela,” he said.

Chavez announced plans earlier this week for the state to take control of the country’s largest telecommunications company, its electricity and natural gas sectors and four heavy crude upgrading projects now controlled by some of the world’s top oil companies.

He said Saturday, however, that private companies will be allowed to own minority stakes in the lucrative Orinoco River basin oil projects.

Chavez’s government has already taken majority ownership of all other oil-producing operations in the country through joint ventures controlled by the state oil company. Most companies have shown a willingness to continue investing despite the tightening terms, which have also included tax and royalty increases.

Chavez also plans to strip the central bank of its autonomy and said Saturday that about $8.4 billion of the bank’s foreign reserves would be transferred into a state development fund to finance social projects.

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