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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release September 21, 1999
                          READ OUT TO THE POOL

                          Aboard Air Force One
                       En route Washington, D.C.

7:12 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As you know, the President met with President Chavez of Venezuela this afternoon in a bilateral meeting that has been scheduled now for some time. This is not something that came up at the last minute; this was something that had been agreed to among the two Presidents. They had a telephone conversation back in June. They had met when President Chavez had first been elected and they talked about getting together again. And when they had this telephone conversation they agreed that they would meet at UNGA.

The issues that were discussed, President Chavez explained to President Clinton the efforts that he's making to try to reform Venezuela. As you know, he came to office with a huge mandate from the Venezuelan people. As an outside candidate who does not pertain to the tradition political parties, his platform is one of change. He's trying to transform the constitution. He was able to get a constitutional assembly elected. He described to the President the efforts that he's making in order to try to get that constitution changed.

The President responded by saying that he was, you know, pleased to hear what was going on in Venezuela and what the President, what Chavez was trying to do. He emphasized the importance of making sure that these changes took place within the framework of constitutional, democratic and legal procedures. As you know, there's been a controversy recently between the constituent assembly and the Congress in Venezuela, which many critics of Chavez have argued, have suggested that he was deviating from the constitutional path.

Chavez mentioned this and mentioned that the agreement that had been worked out between the Congress and the assembly, and reiterated at the end of the meeting that he had every intention of trying to keep the process of change within the democratic framework in Venezuela.

The two Presidents also talked about the economic challenges that Chavez faces. Chavez mentioned that inflation has come down during the last period; that he has, in fact, succeeded in reducing the fiscal deficit, but that he recognizes that he has a lot of work to do. He mentioned at one point that the middle class in Venezuela had been pulverized, had basically disappeared and that a lot had to be done in that regard.

And then, finally, the two Presidents talked about cooperation on various fronts, particularly on the narcotics front, where they both stressed the importance of trying to deal with the issue of narcotics.

And I guess there is one other issue that was mentioned, and that had to do with Colombia. President Chavez noted that the guerilla activities in Colombia affect the Venezuelan border significantly and that he's concerned about the situation in Colombia. President Clinton noted that whatever efforts are made to help the Colombians need to be done in close coordination with President Pastrana. And President Chavez recognized that and asserted that, in fact, that he was working with President Pastrana, that he went to see him; and that, in fact, thanks to President Pastrana's say-so, okay, there had been some meetings this past week between one of the guerilla groups and some elements of the Colombian society, including some government officials in Caracas. He was referring to the talks with the ELN.

But, essentially, that was the upshot of the meeting. So they covered constitutional reform issues; they covered economic questions; they covered the conflict in Colombia; then they covered narcotics cooperation.

Q How long was the meeting and was the President reassured by Mr. Chavez's assurances on staying within the democratic framework?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The meeting was approximately a half hour. It was a fairly lively meeting. Others who participated were Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State; Sandy Berger; Ambassador Holbrooke; Governor MacKay; the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, John Maisto; Assistant Secretary Pete Romero.

And, yes, I think that Chavez went out of his way to emphasize that he needed to be patient and that it wasn't easy because, you know, the expectations on him are very, very high. But he went out of his way to assert that he understood that the only way he could really accomplish what he needed to accomplish in Venezuela was to do so within the framework of democratic institutions.

Q Did either the President or Albright say to him that they had concerns, that it appeared that he had departed from a democratic framework, or that that was the way the world community had viewed it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It wasn't stated explicitly, but it was understood. And Chavez's responses suggested that he understood that people have expressed concern over this issue. For example, at one particular point he said, look, as an illustration of the fact that we need to be very patient about this, he referred to an incident when he was present with the equivalent of what would be the State of the Union -- I mean, actually, it was the National Day in the Congress. He went and the Congress, which is controlled by the opposition, had selected a speaker who was extremely, extremely vocal in his criticisms of Chavez; and that he hunkered down and just simply, you know, he took that because he understood that we need to be patient.

And it was -- this was really a very significant incident, because the criticism of Chavez were very, very aggressive.

Q Are you saying that he understood -- or he was saying that he understood that he needed to be patient, or that the rest of the world needed to be patient with his reforms?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He understood -- I think it's quite clear from President Chavez's responses that he understands that the process in Colombia needs to -- and at one point he made allusions to the fact, you know my background. You know what his background is, of course, that he was somebody who became notorious for having tried to overthrow the government of President Carlos Andreas Perez and spent some time in prison. In fact, the United States revoked his visa. And then he was elected President.

He mentioned -- he started out one comment by saying, as you know, you know my background, but I can assure you that we're working to -- change can only come about successfully in Venezuela through democratic channels and procedures.

Q Did you say that it was inherent in his answers that he knew that people were concerned about his commitment to democratic reform? Or did the President specifically make that clear?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President specifically said to him, no, Mr. President, you know, it's in my judgement that these kinds of changes can best be carried out through democratic procedures. And Chavez agreed. Something to that effect, I don't have my notes in front of me.

Q Right, but do you mean by that that Clinton made it clear to him that there are concerns?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. He made it clear to him that there are concerns. I think it would be inappropriate to say that he tried to put some kind of warning in front of him. What he made clear that this kind of process can only take place within the framework of democratic institutions -- essentially saying what a lot of people have been saying about Chavez, he understands this because he's been criticized in Venezuela by many of his detractors and others. And his response was to very, very strongly reaffirm.

I was impressed by the fact that at the end of the conversation, without President Clinton bringing this up again, he reiterated once again his commitment to trying to carry out his reform agenda within the framework of democratic institutions.

Q Was the President reassured by that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the President was reassured by that.

END 7:22 P.M. EDT