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U.S. and others may rap Venezuela for TV closure

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other regional leaders are expected to criticize Venezuela’s recent crackdown on independent media at a regional meeting next week, a U.S. official said on Friday.

High school students yell slogans supporting President Hugo Chavez from inside their schoolyard to demonstrators protesting Chavez's closure of the RCTV television network in Caracas May 30, 2007. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other regional leaders are expected to criticize Venezuela's recent crackdown on independent media at a regional meeting next week, a U.S. official said on Friday. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA)

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez took the RCTV opposition television station off the air on Sunday, silencing what had been a major opponent to reforms that have given the leftist leader greater control over the judiciary, the military and the oil sector of the OPEC member.

On Tuesday, Chavez called news channel Globovision -- the last main opposition media in the country although it does not have nationwide coverage -- an enemy of the state and said he would do what was necessary to stop it from inciting violence.

The United States expects press freedom in Venezuela to be a major topic at an Organization of American States meeting in Panama City on Monday although it is not clear how explicitly the issue will be addressed in the final communique.

“I expect there’s going to be heat put on (Venezuela),” said the U.S. official, saying Rice as well as other officials were likely to raise the topic during talks among the 34 active members of the organization.

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“I’m not sure what the text of the communique will look like at this point but I think there’ll be references to it,” he added. “Whether it will specifically name names or whether it will just state a principle about being concerned about ... recent restrictions placed on (the media), is another question.”

Because the Washington-based OAS operates by consensus, Venezuela could prevent any communique from making specific references to itself.

Since coming to power in 1999, Chavez has won the support of Venezuela’s poor majority with a multibillion-dollar social spending program, financed by the nation’s oil revenues, that helped him win a landslide re-election last year.

But critics say his moves to centralize power and to politicize key institutions like the military, judiciary and oil industry threaten democracy. He is forging a single governing party, ruling by decree and considering abolishing limits on how many terms a president can serve.

Given this trend, political analysts have considered the existence of a critical media as the principal safeguard against Chavez following the lead of his communist mentor Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

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