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Presidents Pledge To Fight Drugs

March 11, 2001

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SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) _ The presidents of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic pledged Saturday to combat drug trafficking and to fight government corruption in Latin America.

President Hugo Chavez also used the three-day official visit to defend his leftist government _ which some have criticized as autocratic _ saying democracy has ``never existed″ in Venezuela.

The visit comes as Chavez has tried to consolidate Venezuela’s leadership in the region. Dominican President Hipolito Mejia’s populist center-left government could be one ally in Chavez’s quest to unite Latin America to counterbalance U.S. influence.

Chavez and Mejia committed to sharing information on drug traffickers and the ``scourge of drugs″ in the region, and also said they would lead a public crusade to help other Latin American countries detect and eradicate corruption.

``Corruption destroys the moral order and justice, and undermines the legitimacy of our democratic institutions,″ the presidents said in a joint statement issued Saturday.

Chavez’s detractors have criticized his alliance with Cuban President Fidel Castro’s communist government, and have said the Venezuelan president usurped legal and legislative power in Caracas.

``I couldn’t threaten democracy, because you can’t threaten something that never existed,″ Chavez said in an address Friday at the National Assembly in Santo Domingo.

He said past Venezuelan leaders feigned democratic stances while using their posts to funnel off the country’s oil wealth.

A former paratrooper who led a failed coup in 1992, Chavez rode a wave of discontent to the presidency in 1998, promising to reverse decades of corruption and economic mismanagement.

He has since radically reformed Venezuela, rewriting the constitution and replacing the opposition-controlled Congress and Supreme Court through a series of elections and referendums.

Chavez has used Venezuela’s oil wealth to build his diplomatic stature. He signed a pact last year to provide oil to 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries _ including the Dominican Republic _ under favorable financial conditions.

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