THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY AMBASSADOR JAMES DOBBINS, NSC SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR INTERAMERICAN AFFAIRS The Briefing Room
4:12 P.M. EST
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: President-elect Chavez met initially with Sandy Berger, and the President joined for about 20 minutes of what was, I guess, about a 40-45-minute session in all. There were two main themes. One was the prospects for democratic reform and change, and the second was the economic situation and President-elect Chavez's perspective economic policies.
Sandy Berger opened by expressing our recognition that the electoral results in Venezuela were a clear mandate for change and reform in the country, and that we would support a process of democratic and constitutional reform. President-elect Chavez responded by outlining his intentions in this regard, and he noted that during the campaign there had been allegations that he intended to proceed in an unconstitutional fashion toward a constituent assembly and reforms of the Constitution. He said that that was not his intention.
He, in fact, turned over a copy of a recent Venezuelan Supreme Court decision which dealt with this issue. He indicated that he -- that apparently the Supreme Court decision indicated that a plebiscite would be constitutional and he said that both -- in current circumstances, both he and the majority of the Congress were moving toward initiating such a step. And he pledged that he would pursue change within democratic and constitutional framework.
On the economic side, he said that he would be meeting with IMF Director Camdesus and wanted to both pursue a policy of economic reform, fiscal constraint -- he indicated that he envisioned significant reduction in the number of ministries, for instance, in his government -- and also support for hemispheric integration. He spoke of Mercusor, the free trade of the Americas negotiations, and the need to move quickly toward further hemispheric and regional integration.
The President arrived at that point. The President said that he admired the way that President-elect Chavez had been able to maintain his core message throughout his political campaign while participating in an open and democratic process, that this was the test of any democratic leader, and repeated his -- he indicated his admiration and interest in Venezuela, spoke about the possibilities of a young and dynamic leadership such as that President-elect Chavez offered to increase Venezuela's prominence in the world in a positive fashion, and also voiced his support for democratic and constitutional reform in the country.
President-elect Chavez spoke pretty much along the lines as he had with Sandy Berger about his intentions in this regard; about his commitment to do this in a democratic and constitutional fashion; about the strong public support in Venezuela for the necessity for reform; about the problems of corruption and the need to deal with corruption. The President said he fully agreed with that.
The President noted that corruption both denies the bulk of the people of a country the ability to share fairly in its wealth, and also breeds a spirit of pessimism and a lack of enterprise; and applauded President-elect Chavez's commitment to address that issue as a priority.
There was further discussion on the economic side. President Clinton said that the United States wanted to work and support Venezuela as it approached these economic reforms. Venezuela is our most important external source of energy. We have an important partnership and President Clinton and President-elect Chavez agreed that this was an area where there was a good deal more that could be done.
Q Did President Clinton specifically say he'd support refinancing Venezuela's external debt, as the President-elect represented outside?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: He expressed broad support for the direction in which President-elect Chavez was going, and we will certainly want to work not only bilaterally, but multilaterally, to support responsible efforts toward reform.
Q Was the fact that there was no photo opportunity sort of a signal that although the U.S. welcomes Chavez, we are not giving him the same welcome --
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I don' think so. There were official photographers from both sides there. There were a number of photographs. I'm sure the Venezuelan press and the White House press have photographs.
Q Was there any signal of --
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I don't think they normally do photo calls in Berger's office. I mean, you guys know better than I -- I've never seen one. For instance, Berger received President-elect Mahuad three months ago in his office and I don't think that there were photographs, other than the official photographers for the two sides on that occasion, either. So I wouldn't attribute anything special to it, except the meeting site.
Q Berger and Chavez met in Berger's office and then the President came --
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: The President came to Berger's office and spent about 20 minutes there.
Q How long was the President with --
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: About 20 minutes.
Q And how long was Berger with him?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Forty-five, I would guess.
Q So altogether, about an hour, and the President was with him the last 25 minutes, you said?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: The total thing was somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour, of which the President was there about 20 minutes.
Q For most of us in the U.S., we don't know very much about Mr. Chavez except that he tried to organize a coup and he's a nationalist. When you talk about economic reforms, what specifically do you mean by economic reforms, or what does he mean by economic reforms?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, I mean the sense of both what he's been saying in the last month or so and what he was saying here is the kind of reforms he's talking about are market-oriented reforms that will make Venezuela more competitive, that will direct its very vast oil and other natural resources in productive ways which will reduce corruption. So obviously we'll wait and see the details, but the impression one has is that these are the sorts of reforms that we and the rest of the international community can support.
Q How specific was he in terms of reducing the size of Venezuela's government?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, he said, for instance, that they currently have 26 ministries and he intends to reduce that to 14. He offered as an example that they have separate ministries for women, for youth, and for labor, and he's going to create a single ministry for social affairs.
Q And he planned to sell off state-owned power companies, other kinds of energy-related --
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: He didn't get into further privatization. At least not that I recall.
Q On the flip side, did he talk at all about nationalization?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: No. Nor has he, I think, recently spoken of further nationalizations.
Q Mexico and Venezuela currently have an oil program that helps Central America sell some oil at preferential rates. Was there any mention of that program, continuing it or increasing it in the wake of Hurricane Mitch and the need to --
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: No, it didn't come up.
Q Are you convinced that Mr. Chavez is now a changed leader or -- how did this conversation appear to you? Or are you just dealing with him because he was, in fact, elected democratically?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Well, clearly the fact that he was elected is important. We deal with democratic leaders, and he's the man who has been chosen by the vast majority of the Venezuelan people, with a clear mandate for change. I think based on not only what he said today, but what he's been saying particularly for the last month or more, and, indeed, even in the campaign, he's clearly not the person he was in 1992 when he attempted to stage a coup. He chose a democratic path to power; we believe that he is sincere in his commitment to democracy. We take him at his word in his pledge that he will pursue the changes that he has outlined within a democratic and constitutional framework.
And we do believe that there is a process of maturation both of the democratic processes in Venezuela and in these other countries, and of the individuals who participate in that process.
Q But he said outside that President Clinton had invited him to come back and he's coming back next month.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Sandy Berger conveyed an invitation from Vice President Gore for Chavez to participate in a conference that Vice President Gore is hosting here on the 24th to the 26th on corruption in international crime. A number of other international leaders are also being invited at this time to that conference.
Chavez responded that he had had to cut this visit short for health reasons and, thus, hadn't been able to have a number of the appointments here and in New York he hoped for, and that the opportunity, thus, to come back in February would allow him to do that. He mentioned to President Clinton when they spoke that he was going to respond positively to Vice President Gore's invitation and he hoped that he would be able to see President Clinton again. President Clinton said he hoped that would be possible and he would check.
Q Did the situation in Brazil come up in any way? The idea that there could be a spillover from Brazil's financial woes --
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Not by -- I don't believe that Brazil was named in that context. There was clearly concern about depressed oil prices and the prospects for growth in a world that was undergoing some pressure and difficulty.
The mention of Brazil was a more positive one in which Chavez mentioned specifically his desire to accelerate the process of economic integration in the region, including -- I don't think he mentioned Brazil, but he said with Mercusor.
Q Did the fact that he put off his inauguration military parade for February 4, which is the anniversary of his coup attempt, does that bother you?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: That's the first I heard of it. I can't tell you -- this hadn't been brought to my attention previously, but I don't think we're bothered about when he has his parade.
Q Is Secretary Rubin still meeting with the President, and does that meeting -- does that sign anything or is there a message there that the U.S. is more concerned with Brazil than it actually states publicly?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I'm sorry -- is Secretary Rubin meeting with Chavez?
Q No, President Clinton.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Oh, I'm sorry. Separate subject I'm not here to brief on, sorry.
Q Will you brief on it?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: No.
Q Do you feel there's any chemistry there -- this is Chavez's first trip to Washington.
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: I think there was good chemistry. I mean, I think he impressed everybody as someone who is vigorous, vital, articulate, who is saying the right things, and who is very eager to work -- not just with the United States -- I think this has been his message in Argentina and Mexico and Brazil and Europe -- I mean, this is about the 17th country he's been to, and I think the impression is a uniform one that this is somebody who wants to work with the rest of the international leadership and is eager to conduct a responsible, democratic and innovative set of policies.
Q Is this the first meeting between Clinton and Chavez?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: Yes.
Q Did Mr. Chavez talk about the potential that Venezuela may need bilateral aid from the U.S. or multilateral aid from the IMF?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: He talked about support in the terms that he spoke of outside to you, and as I've said, he's talking to the IMF, he's talked about support for his reforms. Support usually takes one form or another, whether it's purely moral or there are some sort of resources involved. I think this is an issue of the sort that the IMF deals with routinely.
Venezuela doesn't have an IMF program at the moment, and I'm not sure what their intentions are -- what either the IMF's or Venezuela's intentions are. He wasn't very specific. But he is opening a dialogue with the IMF and for somebody who wants to pursue policies which we can support, that's an important first step.
Q You mentioned he had health problems. Could you say why he is having to cut this trip short?
AMBASSADOR DOBBINS: He apparently had some kind of colitis, I'm told. You ought to check with them about what his health problems are. I don't want to be the source of what his health problems are. But apparently, he had a minor problem which caused him to contract his schedule here.
Q Thank you.
END 4:25 P.M. EST