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Clinton's First South American Stop: Venezuela

President to talk energy and drugs, but not trade

clinton

CARACAS, Venezuela (AllPolitics, Oct. 13) -- He's waited nearly five years, but President Bill Clinton has finally made it to South America.

"Let me first say: saludos, amigos, it is good to be in Venezuela," he said on arriving in Caracas.

It's no coincidence that Venezuela was his first stop. It recently has become the largest exporter of oil to the United States, surpassing Saudi Arabia.

"Your democracy is strong after weathering difficult challenges. Your economy is growing in the wake of real sacrifice," the president said.

But despite the warm welcome from President Rafael Caldera and a 21-gun salute, there are critics. Some groups fear that U.S. support of plans to double Venezuela's oil production to nearly 7 million barrels a day will permanently damage the country's environment.

Maria Eugenia Bustamante, an environmentalist with Orinoco Oilwatch, compares Americans' emerging dependence on Venezuelan oil to drug addiction. "We are asking the American people to stop the consumption, to change their pattern of life," she says.

But the White House says it's better to buy oil from Venezuela than from an unstable Middle East.

U.S. officials had hoped to sign some tax and investment agreements during this visit, but continuing differences have prevented that. So both sides have settled on agreements involving energy cooperation and combating drugs.

Clinton also had hoped to arrive in South America with congressional approval of legislation enabling him to effectively negotiate new free-trade agreements.

But with the U.S. labor movement and others firmly opposed, that so-called fast-track legislation remains on hold.

The president may also have problems on his next stop in Brazil, where the press has been complaining about U.S. arrogance.

Today, Clinton will meet privately with business leaders, and will meet with Caldera to sign the agreements. He speaks to the people of Venezuela this morning and takes off for Brazil in the afternoon. He's scheduled for a state dinner in Brasilia tonight. Tomorrow he'll meet with Brazilian President Fernando Cardozo and head to Sao Paulo in the afternoon.

One thing the president is hoping will be left back home during this stop in Venezuela and later in Brazil and Argentina is the uproar over campaign fund-raising. But given the expected release this week in Washington of more videotapes of fund-raising events, he probably won't be that lucky.

Tight Quarters On Air Force One

Clinton has quite the entourage on his first trip to the region. The first lady and her staff were aboard Air Force One, as was Secretary of State Madeline Albright; U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson; Mack McLarty, the president's envoy to the region; Commerce Secretary Richard Daley; National Security Advisor Sandy Berger; Energy Secretary Federico Pena and drug czar Barry McCaffrey, along with their staffs, of course.

Count in the congressional delegation, which includes Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd and Democratic Reps. Jim McDermott (Wash.), Nydia Velazquez (N.Y.) and Ruben Hinojosa (Texas), and you've got a real crowd.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer contributed to this report.


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Clinton's First South American Stop: Venezuela
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