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Obama says U.S. watching 'crackdowns' on Venezuela opposition

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks as he and Costa Rica's President Laura Chinchilla hold a news conference after their meeting at Casa Amarilla in San Jose, Costa Rica May 3, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

(Reuters) - The United States is watching “crackdowns on the opposition” in Venezuela, President Barack Obama said in a television interview aired on Friday when asked if he considered newly elected Nicolas Maduro to be the country’s legitimate president.

Maduro, elected in April by a narrow margin, earlier this year accused the United States of seeking to kill opposition leader Henrique Capriles to stir chaos and spark a coup. Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, was one of the world’s most vocal critics of the United States.

“I think that the entire hemisphere has been watching the violence, the protests, the crackdowns on the opposition,” Obama said in the interview with Univision News during a trip to Mexico. “I think our general view has been that it’s up to the people of Venezuela to choose their leaders in legitimate elections.”

Opposition-led protests the day after the April 14 vote turned violent and, according to the government, caused nine deaths. Maduro accused Capriles of trying to start a coup against him.

The opposition says officials exaggerated the violence, and some of the deaths were caused by common crime. It accuses the government of persecuting state employees who voted for Capriles, and arresting some activists, in what it calls a wave of repression.

“Our approach to the entire hemisphere is not ideological. It’s not rooted back in the Cold War. It’s based on the notion of our basic principles of human rights and democracy and freedom of press and freedom of assembly. Are those being observed?” Obama said.

“There are reports that they have not been fully observed post-election,” he added. “I think our only interest at this point is making sure that the people of Venezuela are able to determine their own destiny free from the kinds of practices that the entire hemisphere generally has moved away from.”

Obama held up Mexico’s peaceful transition from a conservative to a centrist government last year, and flagged examples in Colombia, Chile and Peru.

The United States angered Maduro when it last month held back recognition of his narrow victory over Capriles.

Reporting by Steve Holland and Mark Felsenthal; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Lisa Shumaker