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US, Venezuela diplomats meet to try to ease tension

Written by: Staff
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WASHINGTON, Apr 5 (Reuters) Diplomats from Venezuela and the United States held their highest-level meeting in years to try to ease tensions between the energy-hungry superpower and one of its major oil suppliers.

Venezuelan Deputy Foreign Minister Mari Pili Hernandez met the top US diplomat for Latin America, Thomas Shannon, yesterday less than two months after the countries each expelled a diplomat in a dispute over spying charges.

Diplomats on both sides have periodically made gestures of reconciliation but ties have steadily deteriorated.

Typically, overtures have been eclipsed by President Hugo Chavez's constant baiting of his American counterpart and increasingly severe US accusations the Venezuelan leader is undemocratic and destabilizing Latin America.

Hernandez doubted the two governments would ever bridge their differences on issues such as free trade, where Chavez has galvanized anti-American sentiment in the region by opposing US plans for a hemisphere-wide accord. But the meeting sought to foster co-operation on areas they agreed on, including counternarcotics.

''There are areas where we have deep differences, which are going to be extremely difficult to agree on, but there are other areas where we could find mutual interests and make progress,'' she said in a telephone interview after the meeting.

It was the first time such high-ranking diplomats had met since President George W Bush came to power in 2001, she said.

The US-Venezuelan relationship has caused anxiety in oil markets, adding to general supply concerns that have helped drive world crude prices higher.

Despite threats to stop selling crude to the United States and redirect shipments to China, Chavez, a leftist who is an ally of Cuban President Fidel Castro, has been a reliable US supplier of oil since he first won office in 1998.

REUTERS SI ND0944

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